When President Bush went to the United Nations last month, he had lunch with some world leaders and told them privately what he thought of John Kerry. Bush called his opponent a flip-flopper, precisely what he has been saying on the stump. If you expected otherwise, you do not know George Bush. As with his turn to religion, this president -- once he gets there -- sticks to his message. It's why he lost the debate with John Kerry.

I dwell first on images and atmospherics because those, we are told, are often more important to a presidential debater than substance. Bush didn't look good. He appeared smaller than Kerry, sometimes angry, and seemed to develop the sort of relationship with his lectern that an infant does with a security blanket. He was not the same man who landed on an aircraft carrier that itself boasted "Mission Accomplished." The warrior seemed weary.

Kerry did not. After some brief butterflies, the challenger took control. He seemed confident, sure of his material and certain he was getting the best of the argument -- although sometimes that confidence was misplaced. But his responses mostly were sharp and to the point -- a happy contrast to his long-winded stump style, in which ideas are squeezed through so many rhetorical emendations they emerge as themeless gruel. This was a different Kerry.

But the difference was really not just of style but of substance. Kerry seemed to have the better of the argument because in fact he did have the better of the argument. On the very day the two presidential debaters were going at it in Coral Gables, Fla., yet another bloodbath had occurred in Iraq. This time at least 41 people, 34 of them children, were killed in multiple car bombings, and U.S. forces suffered yet another fatality. In the just-concluded month of September there were more than 40 car bombings -- one after another after another as if in steady and hideous rebuke to the president's happy talk. At least in the near term, Iraq is a debacle.

The bombings are awful to look at, and understandably you might want to turn away. But look closely. The bombings represent a level of organization and bombmaking know-how that is chillingly impressive. These are not the bombs and ambushes of clumsy amateurs but the work of expert bombmakers and experienced fighters. Somewhere, probably in more than one location, is a clandestine bomb factory -- and coalition forces cannot find it or the people who work there. In other words, all these many months after the president posed before that "Mission Accomplished" banner, the once-glorious liberation of Baghdad has turned into a chimera. Insurgents control parts of the city. If this keeps up, the banner will belong to them.

To this backdrop of grim reality, Bush could only utter sayings from his White House sampler. To the unrebuttable charge that he initiated a foolish war and then mismanaged it, Bush could only say that being president was tough work and, oh yeah, stay the course. To the accusation that the war in Iraq diverted troops and much else from the effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, Bush could only say stay the course, the presidency is no gambol among the tulips and, yeah, his opponent was inconsistent and had seen the same intelligence data -- a kind of so's-your-mother rebuttal that was just plain silly. Bush, not Kerry, was the president.

Bush is right about one thing: Kerry has been inconsistent. What's more, Kerry's purported plan to end the war or, at least, lessen American involvement, is rooted in fantasy. Our European allies -- not to mention our Middle Eastern ones -- are not about to gallop to our rescue. Neither France nor Germany will allow their soldiers to die to rectify an American mistake. No sirree, John, this ain't about to happen.

What we saw the other night was one man's pitiful attempt to defend a failed policy. Nothing George Bush could say alters the facts on the ground. No repeated recitation of a fable changes the fact that Saddam Hussein was not in cahoots with Osama bin Laden and that weapons of mass destruction did not exist. These facts -- hard, awful facts -- are what emboldened Kerry and undermined Bush. The president stayed on message -- lashed to it like Ahab on the whale. It's what sank him.

cohenr@washpost.com