CORAL GABLES, Fla., Sept. 30 -- President Bush and John F. Kerry clashed over the Iraq war Thursday night in an intense and substantive first debate, in which the Democratic nominee charged that the war was a diversion from the more important war against al Qaeda and the president defended the conflict as crucial to the nation's security.
In their first face-to-face encounter, the two presidential candidates repeatedly returned to the themes that have dominated the campaign. The Massachusetts senator accused the president of "misleading" the nation as he went to war, while Bush said nine times that Kerry's "mixed messages" and "mixed signals" mean he does not have the steadiness to be an effective commander in chief.
"The president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment, and judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America," Kerry said of the war. "I would not take my eye off of the goal: Osama bin Laden."
Bush countered that Kerry's criticism of the war in Iraq would make it impossible for him to lead allies to victory there. "What's the message going to be: -- Please join us in Iraq for a 'grand diversion'?" Bush asked. Allies, he said, "are not going to follow somebody who says this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. They're not going to follow somebody whose core convictions keep changing because of politics in America."
There were no glaring mistakes by either candidate during the 90-minute debate at the University of Miami, although Bush often appeared agitated, scowling at times as Kerry leveled his charges. While both delivered their messages forcefully, Kerry sharply questioned the president's credibility and highlighted his own ability to serve as commander in chief.
It will take days to see how the millions of American viewers reacted to the debate, but instant polls by the major networks, subject to less rigorous methodology than the high-profile campaign polls, showed Kerry had significantly outperformed Bush. The Democrat was hoping a strong performance would reduce the narrow but consistent lead Bush has had in opinion polls nationally and in key electoral states.
Both men appealed to the widespread fear and unease in the nation by suggesting his opponent would be a more dangerous choice. Bush reminded viewers of the menace of foreign terrorists. "We are facing a group of folks who have such hatred in their hearts, they'll strike anywhere with any means," he said, also arguing that "the biggest disaster that could happen is that we not succeed in Iraq."
Kerry, by contrast, painted an ominous portrait of Iraq: "We see beheadings, and we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border every single day, and they're blowing people up." He suggested Americans have more to fear at home. "Ninety-five percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected," he said. "Civilians get onto aircraft and their luggage is X-rayed, but the cargo hold is not X-rayed. Does that make you feel safer in America?"
The candidates hewed to their well-known styles. Kerry cited many statistics and used sometimes elaborate arguments to make his point. The president frequently employed slogans from his campaign stump speech and often put Kerry on the defensive by shifting from questions about his own record to questions about Kerry's capabilities.
When Bush, responding to a question about Iraq, said "the enemy attacked us," Kerry called Bush's remark "extraordinarily revealing" and added: "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us; Osama bin Laden attacked us."
"Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us," Bush replied.
Bush repeatedly talked about how hard the war was, and spoke most passionately about praying and crying with the wife of fallen soldier. "I told her her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy, because I understand the stakes in the war on terror," he said. "Every life is precious."
Kerry, who has been criticized by a group of Vietnam veterans for leading antiwar protests and talking about how U.S. soldiers committed war crimes, said his experience in the early 1970s taught him to speak out in troubled times. "It reminds me it is vital for us not to confuse the war -- ever -- with the warrior. That happened before," he said. Kerry sought to turn the president's laserlike focus on consistency against him. "It is one thing to be certain. But you can be certain and be wrong."
The debate revisited many of the well-known disagreements from the campaign and repeatedly returned to its central themes: Kerry doubting Bush's "credibility" at home and abroad, and Bush repeatedly doubting Kerry's ability to command and not "waver."