Those defending the president -- Rove and conservative columnist Bill Kristol, who is also editor of The Weekly Standard -- argued that Bush took the fight against Islamic terrorism overseas, creating a fragile but stable democracy in the heart of the Middle East and preventing a single terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
"I think Karl is right, that the president would not have gone to war if -- what seems to be the case -- that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction programs at the time," said Kristol.
"Having said that ... I think it was right to go to war. The Middle East would be much more dangerous if he were still in power. Every radical state and every radical group would be empowered. ... We would have a much more resurgent radicalism in the Muslim world than we have today where it's much more of a mixed bag. And I think many of the terror groups are on the defensive and on the run."
In addition to the mismanagement of the Iraq War, Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of the Slate group, a unit of the Washington Post Co., listed the restriction of civil rights, including the right of habeus corpus for enemy combatants, sacrificing American unity after 9/11 and the economic crisis as among Bush's worst offenses.
Though Nixon was corrupt, Weisberg said, he at least opened China to rapprochement. Carter, he said, capped a decade of economic mismanagement and his mishandling of Iran emboldened the Soviets to invade Afghanistan, but at least he could claim the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt as a success.
"Neither rivals Bush for sheer incompetence," Weisberg said, joking that if Kristol and Rove "argue that Bush is only the second-worst president in the last 50 years, that's not much of a defense."
The largely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina was mentioned only once during the debate, by Weisberg, who said it did not even make his top five list of worst incidents.
Rove defended Bush's domestic policies as ardently as the president's foreign policies.
He said No Child Left Behind, the national educational testing program, led to the greatest improvement in test scores in the past 30 years.
"We have seen more improvement in reading, math and science scores than in the past 28 years combined. [Scores] have gone up in the black, brown, poor and rural communities."
Rove claimed the prescription drug benefit as Bush's greatest health care improvement and argued that the Bush tax cut saved the country from earlier economic crisis.
The economy, he said, would have "bottomed out in 2002" if not for "the political moxie to pass [the] $1.6 trillion stimulus package and long-lasting tax cuts."