More of the same.

Those four words helped John Kerry achieve his political goals and needs more fully than George W. Bush did in Thursday's televised debate. The challenger's warning that Bush would give Americans "more of the same" in Iraq pushed the president deeper into a defensive crouch that he never quite escaped.

There were holes aplenty in Kerry's crisp sketches of what he would do about Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Russia -- more, in fact, than there were in Bush's repetitive arguments that he would keep America on the offensive against global terrorism. But for this viewer, Bush was unable to turn the holes of implausibility to his advantage, while Kerry did just that on Iraq.

Bush's failure and the unintentional help of the only remaining superpowers of American politics -- the television networks -- enabled Kerry to survive a trap that Karl Rove had set with the choice of the topic and procedural rules for the first debate. Kerry lived to debate another night.

The usual caveats and cliches apply: Winning a debate is not winning an election. What Kerry accomplished was mainly to stanch the bleeding of a disappointing, losing campaign. Bush's lead over Kerry was not seriously shaken in the first polls taken after the debate. It is still the incumbent's race to lose.

But that does not gainsay what Kerry accomplished. He pushed the erratic conduct of the war in Iraq since April to the front of the campaign debate. Bush's rhetorical pounding of Kerry for shifting positions on the original decision to topple Saddam Hussein seemed to lose currency and altitude as Kerry resolutely focused on what comes next. For 90 minutes at least, Kerry was consistent -- consistently on Bush's case.

The challenger's "plan" to get other countries to assume the burden of pacifying Iraq, and to add two U.S. Army divisions and double the number of Special Operations troops in time to help in Iraq, is hardly plausible. But Bush offered no clear vision of his own to rebut or puncture it. Instead, he defended his policies by praising the character and toughness of Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister brought to office by Bush aides and the CIA.

Even if Bush is right about Allawi's qualities, the president's approach puts an unbearable weight on a single, unelected, unpopular leader. Few of America's prospective voters who tuned in to the debate had a clear enough image of Allawi to assimilate Bush's argument into a meaningful view of their own.

That is the central problem in any political "debate" on foreign policy. Politics is a direct, specific contact sport. Foreign policy involves making and weighing abstract generalizations about how the world should be or should act in the absence of clearly binding rules and enforcement powers. Debating foreign policy is like buying a pig in a poke, except you can't be sure there really is a pig in there.

Thursday night's fragmented argument over Kerry's championing of bilateral talks with North Korea and Bush's insistence on the value of multilateral talks instead illustrated the triumph of this kind of verbal dexterity over reality.

Kim Jong Il is interested in nuclear bombs, not in a particular format for talks. His covert betrayal of the nonproliferation agreement struck with a trusting Democratic administration and his overt belligerent defiance of Bush's tougher approach make that clear. But neither Kerry nor Bush could voice that inconvenient reality Thursday night.

The failure by both candidates to deal with North Korea's true motivation points up the unreliability of their words. It may be that the much-maligned "average" viewer who is said to make judgments about the candidates on nonverbal cues -- the physical appearance and personal demeanor that television brings into the living room -- is behaving at least as rationally as experts who energetically parse the carefully constructed debate rhetoric. But that thought would be heresy in my line of work.

Leave it at this: The strongest tie to real-world behavior Thursday night did not come from the candidates or their campaign aides, who had laboriously negotiated 32 pages of words to govern the conduct of the debate. It came instead from the television networks, which simply refused to honor the candidates' agreement not to show reaction shots to one another's remarks. When George W. Bush or John Kerry gets CBS or PBS to follow their leadership, they may have a chance with Kim Jong Il.

jimhoagland@washpost.com