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Debate provides Bush and Kerry with fresh salvos

TAMPA -- Senator John F. Kerry and President Bush emerged from their first debate with new ammunition in the presidential race, each returning to the campaign trail yesterday with a message honed to seize on the other's perceived failures during one of the most widely viewed events of the presidential race.

Kerry, awash in glowing reviews of a debate that even many Republicans said he dominated, embarked on a strategy to ride the momentum into his next encounter with Bush by pivoting back to domestic issues. Bush advisers, while acknowledging that Kerry had some success in the debate, insisted their Democratic rival made substantive missteps about Iraq that they could turn to their advantage.

Kerry advisers said they hope to keep Bush on the defensive with new campaign ads and a speech today in Orlando laying out their plans for the economy, an issue more problematic for Bush than the questions about national security that dominated their exchange Thursday night.

Kerry folded a comment Bush made during the debate into his remarks on the stump, mocking the president for warning about a "tax gap" that would be created by Democratic plans for homeland security.

"He says, 'Well, I don't know how you're gonna pay for all that; you're gonna have a tax gap,' " Kerry said, imitating Bush's informal speaking style. "My friends, this is the president who created a tax gap by providing a tax cut to the wealthiest Americans instead of investing in homeland security in the United States. Let's get real!"

No less determined to wring new attacks on his rival out of the debate watched by about 62 million viewers, Bush ridiculed a comment Kerry had made about needing to pass a "global test" before taking military action. "The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France," Bush told an enthusiastic crowd in Allentown, Pa.

Bush campaign officials said their strategy in the coming days is to escalate their attacks on Kerry over inconsistency, mocking one of his remarks from the debate, that he had misspoken about an $87 billion aid bill, as another version of a problematic comment.

But Republicans were deluged with questions about the president's scowling expression and exasperated demeanor during the debate.

"He was not looking irritated. I know irritated," senior strategist Karl Rove said of the look on the president's face during the debate. The Democratic National Committee posted video images on its website titled "Faces of Frustration," showing Bush's countenance during the debate.

Democrats expressed delight that Kerry appeared to put the president on the defensive, and even a senior Bush campaign official conceded Kerry had made "great advances rhetorically" in his 90-minute exchange with the president.

Echoing that view, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said Kerry displayed "significant debating skills" and "presented himself very well."

At a rally with 9,000 raucous supporters at the University of South Florida's sports arena, Kerry appeared energized by his debate performance. He continued to criticize Bush for his statement Thursday night linking the invasion of Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by "the enemy."

Kerry drew an outburst of laughter by mocking the president's speaking style and choice of words in the debate. "The president keeps trying to debate himself on this," Kerry said of whether Saddam Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. "He keeps trying to say, 'Well, we're not, we're not, we don't, you know' " -- phrases that Kerry sputtered out, to the crowd's delight.

" 'We don't want somebody who wants to leave; we don't want to wilt or waver.' I don't know how many times I heard that. Well, Mr. President nobody's talking about leaving, nobody's talking about wilting and wavering -- we're talking about winning, and getting the job done right."

In the same speech, the Democrat began shifting his focus away from Iraq, which has consumed the campaigns and dominated media attention for the last two weeks, and toward his new goal for the weeks ahead: making as aggressive a critique of the Bush record on jobs, health care, and the environment as he made Thursday night on terrorism and the war.

Kerry likened Bush's policies on these issues to the political deceptions in a George Orwell novel. "They have a policy for the tax relief, right? But their kind of tax relief is the kind of relief you get when someone goes into your home and robs your TV set -- they relieve you of your TV set," Kerry said to cheers.

Campaign spokesman Michael McCurry said that even as Kerry begins to focus on domestic concerns, the senator will continue to talk about Iraq. "Senator Kerry very clearly demonstrated last night that as commander in chief, he wouldn't take his eye off that ball," McCurry said. Bush campaign officials, conceding Kerry had scored points for his debate performance, said the substance of his rhetoric Thursday night had provided them with material to bolster their most successful argument to date: that the Massachusetts Democrat is inconsistent about Iraq. In particular, they said his assertion that the war in Iraq is a mistake clashed with his later view that soldiers in Iraq are not dying for a mistake.

"Certainly, he made great advances rhetorically, proving he can indeed give a two-minute answer," Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said of Kerry. "But as far as saying something more coherent about our allies . . . I don't think he unraveled some of his incoherence."

On issues from the $87 billion supplemental bill to whether the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, Devenish said: "What we got out of the debate was fresh evidence these are places where he [Kerry] is deeply conflicted." Along those lines, the Republican National Committee launched a new ad, titled "Kerry vs. Kerry," that strung together video of seemingly contradictory comments Kerry made before and during the exchange.

Bush, campaigning in Pennsylvania yesterday, seized on several assertions Kerry made the night before, including his suggestion of an international summit on Iraq, saying no "meeting" would have rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein's rule.

Bush was especially harsh in criticizing Kerry for his statement that troops are not dying for a mistake. "Last night, Senator Kerry only continued his pattern of confusing contradictions. After voting for the war, after saying my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, he now says it was all a mistake," Bush said.

"But . . . does that mean our troops are dying for a mistake?" Bush asked. The crowd interrupted him, shouting, "No!"

"That's what he said, no," Bush said. "You can't have it both ways. You can't say it's a mistake and not a mistake."

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