Iraq war, terror drive 1st debate

One man gains in stature, the other holds to his vision

Analysis: The two combatants punch and counterpunch, but neither scores a knockout.

Election 2004

Presidential debates

October 01, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Last night, John Kerry lived up to his reputation as a politician who's at his best with his back to the wall.

Facing the largest audience of his life, and with his candidacy on the line, Kerry relentlessly pursued President Bush over his leadership in the war on terror, accusing him of taking his eye off the fight against al-Qaida when he invaded Iraq.

Bush, though appearing rattled at times, aggressively defended himself.

"Of course we're after Saddam Hussein, I mean bin Laden. He's isolated," said Bush. "We're making progress."

That was the closest thing to a stumble by either man, in what was generally a gaffe-free encounter.

Repeatedly, Bush responded to the challenger's criticism by reminding voters about what they like least about Kerry - his image of indecisiveness, which Bush's campaign has effectively pinned on the Massachusetts Democrat.

"You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens. And that's my biggest concern about my opponent," he said. "There must be certainty from the U.S. president."

Thinking on his feet, Kerry replied: "You can be certain and be wrong. ... And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble."

Charge, countercharge

Kerry implied, as he did elsewhere in the debate, that Bush either didn't know, or wouldn't acknowledge, problems in Iraq, North Korea or even the threat of global warming or "the truth of the science of stem-cell research."

On Iraq, he charged: "I don't know if [Bush] sees what's really happening out there, but it's getting worse by the day."

In a similar vein, Bush played off of the powers of incumbency, accusing Kerry of failing to grasp that the U.S. military has the ability to go after bin Laden and Iraq at the same time.

Casting the war as part of a wider, "global effort" against terrorism, Bush said his rival "doesn't really understand the nature of the war on terror."

The Bush message

The president offered voters what the polls say they like best about him: single-minded determination, resoluteness and a sense of confidence that he has the best ideas for preventing another terrorist attack like Sept. 11.

Over and over, Bush sought to undercut Kerry's efforts to convince voters that he could stand in the president's place as commander in chief. The president's argument: that Kerry's description of Iraq as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" sends a demoralizing message to American troops and to U.S. allies.

"Not what a commander in chief does when you're trying to lead troops," said Bush.

The Kerry message

Kerry shot back with his best line of the night.

"I made a mistake in how I talk about the war," he said. "But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

The senator then reverted to the standard response he has used throughout his career in such situations, drawing on his combat service in Vietnam to defend himself when his convictions are under attack.

"I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right. That's what I learned in Vietnam," he said. "And I'm going to lead those troops to victory."

Kerry came across as knowledgeable and sure-footed, lacing his criticism of Bush's foreign policy with assaults on the administration's domestic agenda as well. He delivered his lines with self-assurance, though whether he changed the minds of undecided voters was unclear.

Sharp attacks

Beneath the surface of a gentlemanly debate between men with much in common - Bush alluded at one point to the fact that both were at Yale during the 1960s - there were sharp exchanges and veiled personal attacks.

At one point, moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS asked Kerry to clarify what he meant when he said Bush had misled the country, noting that, in his campaign, he had essentially accused the president of lying to the country.

Kerry, who repeatedly questioned the president's judgment and credibility, said that he would never use such a harsh word. Then he reiterated his contention that Bush had misled the country into war, which he said had "cost us deeply in the world."

Kerry said he would offer "a fresh start, new credibility." But he was less successful in outlining a clear plan for dealing with problems such as Iraq that would represent a marked shift from Bush's policies.

The challenge

Going into the debate, analysts were saying that all Bush had to do was avoid mistakes and he would emerge with his advantage over Kerry intact. But the senator, standing on the same stage with the president of the United States, gained the enhanced stature that challengers often do at such moments.

Kerry entered the auditorium with a seemingly impossible challenge. The topics of the night - the war in Iraq, terrorism, homeland defense - were the issues on which Bush has built his biggest advantage.

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