CORAL GABLES, Fla. In a 90-minute exchange of diametrically opposed views about the war in Iraq that will give voters a clear choice on Nov. 2, Sen. John Kerry and President Bush clashed repeatedly in their first televised debate last night about whether the war was justified.
Mr. Kerry accused the President of a colossal error of judgment by ordering the invasion of Iraq.
The world is better off without Saddam Hussein, the President shot back, adding that his rival once said so himself.
The four-term U.S. senator from Massachusetts said he could do a better job than Mr. Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept. 11-style attack, and pledged to be strong and resolute in fighting terrorism.
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But we also have to be smart ... and smart means not diverting our attention from the war on terror and taking it off to Iraq, Mr. Kerry said.
This president, I don t know if he really sees what s happening over there, Mr. Kerry said of Mr. Bush, the two men standing behind lecterns 10 feet apart on a University of Miami debate stage.
Mr. Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Mr. Kerry as a man who changes his mind too often to be president.
He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it s the wrong war at the wrong time. .... I don t think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops? said the Republican incumbent.
At one point, Mr. Bush insisted Saddam Hussein attacked the United States. Mr. Kerry was quick to correct the President, saying that the 9/11 Commission found no evidence that Saddam was linked to the terrorists attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
The debate was the first face-to-face encounter between Mr. Bush, wearing a blue tie, and Mr. Kerry, wearing a red tie.
They agreed that the U.S. president must always have a right to begin a preemptive war, but the agreement ended there.
Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their face-to-face encounter, but this was the first time each had to listen to the criticism at close quarters.
President Bush appeared perturbed when Senator Kerry leveled some of his charges, scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others.
Mr. Kerry accused Mr. Bush of ignoring the nuclear threats Iran and North Korea have posed on the President s watch and said Russia is dismantling its democracy without a stern rebuke from the United States.
Mr. Bush said he has told Russian leader Vladimir Putin of his concerns but that Russia is also a strong ally in the war on terror.
If Mr. Kerry s strength was articulating a strong command of facts and insisting that four more years of Mr. Bush in the White House would be four more years of the same, Mr. Bush s strength was staying on his message that Mr. Kerry has been inconsistent in his positions on the war, the flip flop charge that Mr. Kerry repeatedly rejected in the debate.
I have never wavered in my life. My position has been consistent. Saddam Hussein was a threat. He needed to be disarmed. We needed to go to the United Nations, but we didn t need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace, Mr. Kerry said.
Senator Kerry conceded a mistake on one point, but implied it paled next the one he accused Mr. Bush of making.
You know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?
He explained voting for and against the $87 billion authorization for Iraq by saying he hadn t explained well his opposition based on how the money would be raised.
Asked if Mr. Kerry has character flaws that would mean he wouldn t be a good president, Mr. Bush said he admired Mr. Kerry s military service in Vietnam, that he s a good dad, and that he served for 20 years in the Senate , although I m not so sure I admire the record.
But he said his concern is that Mr. Kerry changed his positions on the war on Iraq.
Mr. Kerry said he would not pull out of Iraq but would win the war because, he said, he has a plan and Mr. Bush does not and is not learning from the facts about increasing violence and instability in Iraq.
Mr. Bush repeatedly said, We will fight the war in terror abroad so we don t have to fight them here at home.
To suggest that American troops would be out of Iraq in four years, as Mr. Kerry has done, he said, was to let the soldiers in Iraq down.
The two men clashed time and again over Iraq and the broader war on terror.
Mr. Kerry said he had a fourpart plan to battle terrorists, and said President Bush s plan could be summed up in four words More of the same.
You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror, retorted the President.
Mr. Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one point during the debate when he said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had stopped American troops from advancing on Baghdad after they had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway, without an exit strategy, and under conditions that mean the United States has incurred 90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost.
In response, Mr. Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigrated U.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aid Afghanistan and Iraq, and sent mixed signals.
What s his message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? the President said.
They re not going to follow someone whose core convictions keep changing because of politics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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