CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- John F. Kerry and President Bush clashed sharply over the war in Iraq last night during the first debate of the presidential campaign season, with the senator from Massachusetts accusing the incumbent of making a ''colossal error" while Bush said his challenger had switched positions so many times he could not be a credible commander in chief.
Kerry, who voted to authorize the war in Iraq but has been critical of it in the two years since, assailed Bush most sharply over his attempts to connect the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the operation in Baghdad. ''Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us," Kerry said.
Bush, appearing exasperated as his rival spoke, leaned into the podium and replied: ''Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that." But Bush maintained his core argument about the war in Iraq -- that it is part of a global struggle against terrorism -- and said his opponent could never successfully bring peace to the war-torn region after being so critical of the US effort there.
''I think 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. ''As the politics change, his positions change. And that's not how a commander in chief acts."
The 90-minute session, moderated by PBS host Jim Lehrer and televised live from the campus of the University of Miami, was the most anticipated event so far in a presidential race already marked by extraordinary warring between the two parties. Some 50 million viewers were expected to tune in to watch Bush and Kerry in their first joint appearance, previewed for weeks as an event of critical importance that could shape the election outcome.
Despite strict regulations about their conduct, the debate grew spirited at times and led to several feisty exchanges as they responded to each other's charges. Kerry, criticized in the past for windy rhetoric, did not exceed the time limits as some of his advisers had feared. It was Bush who appeared at times hamstrung by the debate rules, cutting in as his rival spoke and requesting time to respond.
Beyond Iraq, the candidates were both asked to name what they see as the top threat to the United States; both cited nuclear weapons in the hands of an enemy. Kerry accused the president of letting efforts to secure nuclear material in Russia lapse, and of failing to halt the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea; he said he would ''immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea."
''I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is," Bush said. He has allowed talks with North Korea only in concert with the surrounding countries.
But it was Iraq and the war on terrorism that overwhelmingly dominated the exchanges, putting both candidates in the spotlight over the central issue of the presidential race. And despite months of preparation for the event, there were moments of spontaneity as the two clashing visions of the world finally met up close.
At the core of Kerry's argument was a newly honed theme: that Bush has lost his way in the war on terrorism, allowing Al Qaeda's top leader to remain a fugitive while the United States pursues a misguided war in Iraq. Kerry also repeated his accusations that Bush has let conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, while abandoning the United Nations, saying he ''refuse[d] to deal at length" with the international governing body.
Bush remained steadfast in two lines of attack: that Iraq is central to the war on terrorism, and that Kerry is too inconsistent to serve as commander in chief. But Bush also responded to Kerry on an array of accusations. At one point, Bush called Kerry's assertions about the UN ''totally absurd," saying he welcomed help from the international community in trying to safeguard elections there in January.
Kerry did not relent in his criticism, saying that when it came to waging war, Bush ''pushed our allies aside."
''When we went in, there were three countries: Great Britain, Australia, and the United States. That's not a grand coalition," he said. ''We can do better."
Bush, asked for his response, said: ''Well, actually, he forgot Poland."
''And now there's 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops," Bush said. ''And I honor their sacrifices. And I don't appreciate it when a candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave soldiers."
With just 33 days left until Election Day, the candidates came to the debate with divergent goals -- Bush hoping to persuade voters that his strategy will lead to a free Iraq and victory over terrorism, Kerry seeking to overcome the perception he is wavering on foreign policy. The sharp spike in casualties in Iraq earlier in the day only heightened the debate. Advisers to Bush hoped to deflect charges he is living in a ''fantasy world," as Kerry has put it, by convincing voters he can be both optimistic about progress in Iraq and truthful about events. But Bush campaign officials were most aggressive about keeping the focus on Kerry.
Kerry and Bush dove quickly into the heart of the national security debate with practiced monologues about how best to fight terrorism in Iraq and around the world. At one point, Kerry suggested that any preemptive strike would have to pass a ''global test." Bush jumped on that suggestion: ''My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people."
Kerry accused Bush of letting the hunt for bin Laden lapse in order to pursue a misguided war in Iraq, repeatedly mentioning the name of the fugitive terrorist behind the Sept. 11 attacks -- a name Bush has largely dropped from his vocabulary in the years bin Laden has eluded capture. Kerry also mentioned, at least three times, that the United States is contributing 90 percent of the resources and manpower in Iraq -- hoping to undercut the president's contention that he has built strong alliances in the war.
''I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are. But we also have to be smart," he said. ''And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking off to Iraq.
''This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment," Kerry said.
Bush, staunchly defending his record, said that key Al Qaeda leaders have been captured and that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was driven from power. ''This nation of ours has a solemn duty to defeat this ideology of hate," he said.
Bush stuck firmly to his phrases of choice as well. Over and over, Bush assailed a refrain from Kerry weeks earlier that Iraq is the ''wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time," arguing that the Democrat was failing to support the troops.
''What my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time," Bush said. ''I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say, 'Wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.' "
As expected, Bush went to great lengths to demonstrate his sensitivity to the violence on the ground. ''I understand how hard it is. I get the casualty reports every day. I see on the TV screens how hard it is. But it's necessary work. And I'm optimistic," he said.
Kerry fired back with references to his own Vietnam service. ''It is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors. That happened before, and that's one of the reasons I believe I can get this job done," Kerry said. ''The president's not getting the job done."
The meeting between Bush and Kerry was the first of three planned debates. Their running mates will square off for the vice-presidential debate Tuesday. Though the debate had been designated specifically as a session on foreign policy, Kerry attempted, within the first half hour, to link the invasion of Iraq to the Bush economic policies -- specifically, the tax cut for wealthy Americans that Kerry has argued should be partially repealed. Kerry said Bush has failed to invest in homeland security in the United States while funding reconstruction in Iraq.