CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush of making a “colossal error” in invading Iraq, hoping a sharp attack in their first debate Thursday would shake up the presidential campaign five weeks before voters go to the polls.
Bush countered that Kerry was a political opportunist who voted to authorize the war, then denounced it and thus discounted his effectiveness as a potential commander in chief. “What message does that send?” Bush asked repeatedly.
The 90-minute face-off was the first debate over national security between the leaders of the country’s two major political parties since the United States was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. It also was the first such televised encounter ever during wartime. There were no presidential debates during the Vietnam War.
Kerry needed to score against Bush, facing the incumbent 32 days before Election Day, with Bush holding a slight lead in most polls but the race still close enough to swing either way.
With as many as 60 million Americans watching, the debate offered the single best chance for Kerry to gain ground or for Bush to solidify his lead. Though many voters have already made up their minds, Thursday night’s audience still was likely to be the largest of the three debates – and its subjects of war and national security the most pressing.
Kerry stayed on the offensive throughout the showdown, held at the University of Miami, labeling Bush as a careless leader who let terrorist Osama bin Laden escape in Afghanistan, led the country precipitously into war in Iraq without proper planning and ignored vital security needs at home, such as securing ports.
Bush defended his record as a determined and steadfast leader who’s taken the fight to enemies abroad. Even when Americans disagree with him, he said, they know where he stands.
Kerry said Bush wrongly took his focus off the war against terrorism in Afghanistan to invade Iraq and that he went to war there too quickly, without enough troops, allies or planning for how to secure the postwar peace.
“This 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 bin Laden, Kerry said Americans should’ve captured him in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001. “We had him surrounded,” Kerry said. “But we didn’t use American forces, the best trained in the world to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords that he outsourced that job to.”
The Democratic presidential nominee said Afghanistan has slipped backward since an American-led coalition invaded in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. He said Afghanistan now produces 75 percent of the world’s opium and that elections have been postponed three times.
Turning back to Iraq, Kerry said Bush doesn’t acknowledge how bad things are.
“It’s getting worse every day,” Kerry said. “More soldiers killed in June than before, more in July than June, more in August than July, more in September than in August. And we see beheadings, and we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border every single day, and they’re blowing people up.”
Kerry insisted he would be a strong defender of the United States.
“I can make America safer than President Bush has made us,” Kerry said. “I believe President Bush and I both love our country equally, but we just have a different set of convictions about how you make America safe. I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world, and when we are leading strong alliances.
“I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances,” Kerry said. “This president has left them in shatters across the globe, and we’re now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and 90 percent of the costs.”
Bush countered strongly that he’s led a successful war against terrorism.
“We pursued al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda tries to hide,” Bush said. “Seventy-five percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice. The rest of them know we’re after them. … The Taliban is no longer in power. Ten million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan in the upcoming presidential election.
“In Iraq, we saw a threat, and we realized that after September the 11th, we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize. Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell; America and the world are safer for it. We continue to pursue our policy of disrupting those who would proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Libya has disarmed. The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice.”
Bush acknowledged that many Americans disagree with his policies.
“I understand everybody in this country doesn’t agree with the decisions that I’ve made,” he said. “And I’ve made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. People out there listening know what I believe, and that’s how best it is to keep the peace.”
On Iraq, Bush pointedly noted that Kerry had seen the same intelligence and had declared Saddam Hussein a threat. He also reminded people that Kerry once observed that anyone like Democratic primary rival Howard Dean who believed the capture of Saddam didn’t make America any safer didn’t have the judgment to be president.
“I agree with him,” Bush said, turning Kerry’s words against him.
Bush also reminded viewers repeatedly that Kerry has criticized the Iraq war as “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” saying that stance would make it next to impossible for Kerry to get more allies to participate as he’s promised.
“I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place,” Bush said. “What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis? No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I just outlined.”
Bush also insisted that bin Laden, while still free, is no longer an effective leader of terrorists against the United States.
“He’s isolated,” Bush said. “Seventy-five percent of his people have been brought to justice. The mastermind of the September the 11th attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, is in prison. We’re making progress.”