CORAL GABLES, Fla. - In the end, it was a real debate: sharp, scrappy, and defining, just what the nation seemed to be yearning for during a wartime election campaign.
President Bush defended his conduct of the war in Iraq, insisting, "There must be certainty from the U.S. president."
Sen. John Kerry asserted that Mr. Bush had led the country into a debacle in Iraq and it was time for a "fresh start, new credibility" in foreign affairs.
From the very first question of their 90-minute exchange last night, Mr. Kerry was determined to show, as he put it, that "I can make America safer than President Bush has made us." He was cool, respectful, rational in offering a detailed brief that Mr. Bush embarked on a diversion from the war on al-Qaeda and global terror by invading Iraq.
By the time the debate ended, Mr. Kerry appeared to have accomplished his primary goal for the evening: establishing himself as a plausible commander in chief.
Mr. Bush, who seemed defensive and less sure of himself at the outset, quickly gained his footing, counterpunching effectively by repeatedly charging that Mr. Kerry's record was inconsistent and that he lacked the resolve to defend the nation against terrorism.
The President was just as relentless as Mr. Kerry, and perhaps more emotional, never ceding ground to Mr. Kerry in his insistence that he had used every available means to defend the nation in the aftermath of Sept. 11. At times, he seemed to lean into the television camera,
pursing his lips, at some pains to disguise his apparent exasperation at Mr. Kerry's attacks, insisting, as he did at the outset, "People know where I stand."
The two men agreed that the threat of unconventional weapons in the hands of rogue actors would be the biggest challenge facing any president - and that Saddam had seemed to pose such a threat. They agreed that the United States could not pull out of Iraq precipitately. But they disagreed on virtually everything else, from how to handle what both called genocide in Sudan to nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran.
Facing by far the largest national audience of the campaign to date, with polls suggesting that something between one-fifth and one-third of voters might be influenced by the encounter, Mr. Kerry was at pains to rebut the Bush campaign's portrayal of him as a fickle flip-flopper who has repeatedly changed his position on the war in Iraq and would cede too much control of the nation's defenses to foreign allies.
When Mr. Bush noted that Mr. Kerry had voted against an $87 billion appropriation for military and reconstruction operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, then said he had initially voted for another version, Mr. Kerry's rebuttal could hardly have been crisper.
"Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war," Mr. Kerry said. "But the President made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse? I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right. That's what I learned in Vietnam. When I came back from that war, I saw that it was wrong. Some people don't like the fact that I stood up to say so. But I did. And that's what I did with that vote. And I'm going to lead those troops to victory."
Mr. Bush was just as blunt in his insistence that Mr. Kerry's criticism of the conduct of the war had demoralized the troops and the interim Iraqi leaders struggling to impose some stability on that country.
"What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, 'wrong war, wrong place, wrong time,'●" Mr. Bush said, echoing his opponent's recent formulation. "That's not what a commander in chief says when you're trying to lead troops."
Each man was true to type, and gave his committed supporters comforting lines of argument to cling to, with Mr. Bush repeating tested lines from his stump speeches to argue that his course was simple and direct and Mr. Kerry doing the same to argue that only a greater awareness of complexities and more support from allies could truly keep the nation safe.
Few strategists believed this first debate would change the campaign by itself, but for voters wondering whether the choice is as stark as the two sides had portrayed it, the session provided a resounding answer. It also sets the stage for a ferocious campaign over the next 4 1/2 weeks.