Iraq war, terror drive 1st debate

Kerry sees `colossal error,' Bush sees a safer America

Election 2004

Presidential debates

October 01, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Sen. John Kerry sharply criticized President Bush last night for what he called a "colossal error in judgment" in handling Iraq, even as the senator defended himself against Bush's accusations that his positions have shifted with the political winds.

In a 90-minute debate on foreign policy and homeland security, the first of four campaign duels, Kerry acknowledged that at times he has lacked clarity in his statements on Iraq. But he said his stumbles paled by comparison with the president's failures in managing the war in Iraq and its worsening bloodshed.

"I made a mistake in how I talk about the war, but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?" the senator said. Kerry charged that the president jilted America's allies and rushed to war, thereby diverting attention from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against global terrorism.

But Bush, using the stark terms he favors, conceded that the conflict in Iraq is likely to remain a long and difficult one. But sounding a theme that many voters seem to have embraced, the president insisted he is the one candidate strong and steady enough to handle it successfully.

"I've shown the American people I know how to lead," he said. "I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made, and I made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. People out there listening know what I believe, and that's how best it is to keep the peace."

Kerry, under intense pressure as he lags behind in national polls, seemed to keep the president on the defensive, especially over Iraq and terrorism - the issues on which Bush has enjoyed his strongest advantages.

Known throughout his career as a strong campaign "closer" who does best when the stakes are highest, Kerry stayed clear of the florid rhetorical flourishes and verbose replies for which he has earned an unflattering reputation.

The senator seldom lingered long on a defense of his past positions, always pivoting quickly to a discussion of how he would do things in the future. He vowed to bring "fresh credibility" and "a new start" to the war in Iraq, saying, "We will get the job done right."

As the two candidates fielded questions from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, the president sought to turn Kerry's own words against him. He accused his Democratic challenger of repeatedly sending "mixed messages" about his positions. And Bush reminded viewers of an assertion Kerry made last month that Iraq is "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Different TV styles

The president often directed his replies into the TV cameras, addressing an estimated 50 million viewers. He was often caught pursing his lips, even grimacing, as he listened to his opponent's charges. Kerry mostly looked away from the cameras, jotting notes and remaining expressionless as Bush spoke, or at times nodding as if to signal he had a response ready to fire off.

Bush tried to contrast what he called his steady, consistent leadership - often in the face of opposition and criticism - with Kerry's approach. He said the senator has delivered confusing messages and criticism on Iraq, which Bush said do not befit a commander in chief.

"I don't see how you can lead this country to success in the war in Iraq if you say `wrong war, wrong place, wrong time,'" the president said. "The way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved."

Criticized by Kerry for failing to engage allies in the fight against Saddam Hussein, Bush turned the question back on his opponent and asked how his own message would resonate with allies. "What's the message going to be?" Bush asked rhetorically, adding a dose of sarcasm: "`Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?'"

On homeland security, Kerry accused Bush of shortchanging domestic needs in favor of a war made more costly by the dearth of contributions from allies and the two large tax cuts the president has signed into law.

Bush, on the other hand, said the best homeland security measure was to fight against terrorism outside U.S. borders.

"We're doing our duty to provide the funding," Bush said. "But the best way to protect this homeland is to stay on the offense."

Later in the debate, the candidates shifted to other international challenges. They sparred most starkly over North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Kerry charged that Bush's decision to withdraw from direct one-on-one talks with North Korea caused South Korea's president to leave Washington "bewildered" after a meeting with Bush. He called on the president to resume those talks.

But Bush insisted that direct U.S. talks with North Korea were the wrong strategy and that it was best to remain involved in broader talks with Pyongyang that include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

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