Kerry plans to shift strategies somewhat in preparation for the second debate next Friday in St. Louis, aides said. He will focus more on domestic issues such as the escalating costs of health care, education and energy, while continuing to pound the broader theme that Bush has made the wrong choice time after time, and that the American people are paying the price.
The president, meanwhile, traveled the length of the East Coast on Friday to continue to hammer away at Kerry's credibility in the face of danger, which Republicans see as his biggest liability. Bush immediately picked up where he left off in the debate, renewing his assault on Kerry for voting against an $87 billion spending measure for Iraq. "My opponent last night said our troops deserve better," Bush said. "They certainly deserve better than they got from Senator Kerry when he voted to send them to war and then voted against funding our troops in combat." Kerry voted to authorize the war in 2002 and against a spending bill two years later.
Recalling Kerry's statement that he voted both for and against the spending measure, Bush added: "Last night he said he made a mistake in how he talked about that vote. But the mistake wasn't what Senator Kerry said; the mistake was what Senator Kerry did. He voted against supplying our troops after voting for putting them in harm's way."
Ridiculing a previous Kerry statement that the vote was "protest," Bush said: "When we put American troops in harm's way, they certainly deserve better than to have a candidate for president use them as a protest."
The president and his aides sought to highlight an apparent contradiction in Kerry's arguments Thursday night. Bush noted that Kerry asserted that the war in Iraq is a mistake but then said that he did not believe U.S. troops in Iraq are "dying for a mistake," as the senator had said of the Vietnam War.
"You can't have it both ways," Bush said. "You can't say it's a mistake and not a mistake. You can't be for getting rid of Saddam Hussein when things look good and against it when times are hard. You can't claim terrorists are pouring across the border into Iraq, yet at the same time try to claim that Iraq is somehow a 'diversion' from the fight against terrorism.
But John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, predicted that voters will take away a much different message from the debate. "I think what America saw last night in John Kerry was a man of strength, vision, conviction -- a man who is ready to be the next commander in chief," Edwards said at a campaign stop in Ohio.
Milbank is traveling with Bush. Staff writer Matthew Mosk, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.