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 the president's "colossal error in judgment" in handling Iraq, even as the senator vigorously 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 having made verbal missteps in discussing Iraq. But he said his stumbles paled by comparison with the president's failures in managing the war in Iraq and its growing 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 Massachusetts 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 struggle against global terrorism.

"When we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora ... with the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's No. 1 criminal and terrorist," Kerry said. "They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us."

But Bush, using the stark terms he favors, never stayed on the defensive for long. He conceded that there were problems on the ground in Iraq but argued that he was the candidate strong and steady enough to tackle them successfully.

"I've shown the American people I know how to lead," Bush 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 holds his own

Kerry, under intense pressure as he lags behind in national polls, seemed to hold his own against Bush last night and to keep the president on the defensive on Iraq and terrorism - the issues on which Bush has enjoyed his strongest advantages. Known as a strong "closer" throughout his political career, Kerry stayed clear of the florid rhetorical flourishes and verbose replies for which he has earned a reputation during nearly 20 years in the Senate.

The president repeatedly sought to turn Kerry's words against him. He accused the Democratic challenger of sending "mixed messages." And Bush returned several times to an assertion Kerry made last month that Iraq is "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Bush sought to contrast what he called his steady, consistent leadership - even in the face of opposition and criticism - to Kerry's approach.

"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,'" Bush 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.

"What's the message going to be" to U.S. allies, 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?'"

Bush argued that Kerry's "core convictions keep changing because of politics in America." But the Democratic senator asserted that the president blundered in failing to build solid international alliances before the invasion of Iraq.

"They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other," Kerry said.

War is defining issue

The first of the debates, held on the University of Miami's campus, focused on issues that polls show weigh heavily on the minds of voters and that carry hefty stakes for both candidates.

The war in Iraq has been a defining issue for Bush, who painted it as the central front in the war on terrorism and points to Hussein's ouster as a crowning achievement of his term.

The conflict in Iraq has defined Kerry's candidacy too, in a very different way. He has struggled to explain his position, feeding Bush's accusations that he is a "flip-flopper" with a series of contradictory statements on the conflict.

"What is misleading is to say you can lead and succeed in Iraq if you keep changing your positions on this war, and he has," Bush said of Kerry. "As the politics change, his positions change, and that's not how a commander in chief acts."

Kerry delivered his clearest statements yet about his position on the war in Iraq, accusing Bush of mistaking consistency for good leadership.

"It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong," Kerry said. "Certainty sometimes can get you in trouble."

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