Candidates clash over Iraq in first debate

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Sen. John Kerry accused President BushThursday night of a “colossal error in judgment” by ordering theinvasion of Iraq. “The world is better off without Saddam Hussein,”the president shot back in campaign debate, adding his rival oncesaid so himself.

“I agree with him,” the president added sarcastically,emphasizing his campaign’s contention that Kerry is prone toflip-flops.

In a debate dominated by a war that has claimed more than 1,000American lives, Kerry called the conflict a diversion in thebroader struggle against terror and the hunt for Osama binLaden.

The four-term Massachusetts senator said he could do a betterjob than Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept.11-style attack, and pledged to be strong and resolute in fightingterrorism.

“But we also have to be smart … and smart means not divertingour attention from the war on terror and taking it off to Iraq,”Kerry said.

“This president, I don’t know if he really sees what’s happeningover there,” Kerry said of Bush, the two men standing behindlecterns 10 feet apart on a University of Miami debate stage.

Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Kerry as a man who changeshis mind too often to be president.

“He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it’s thewrong war at the wrong time. …. I don’t think you can lead if yousay wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that sendto our troops?” said the Republican incumbent.

More than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since theU.S.-led invasion in March 2003, many of them by insurgentsbattling American forces. Not long before Bush and Kerry strode onstage, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against theinsurgents in Samarra. The U.S. command said government and policebuildings had been secured in the city.

Both men used well-rehearsed lines during theirface-to-face encounter, but

this was the first time each had to listen to the criticism atclose quarters.

Bush appeared perturbed when Kerry leveled some of his charges,scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others.Kerry often took notes when the president spoke.

The debate, which lasted 90 minutes, was moderated by PBS anchorJim Lehrer, who held the candidates to the strict rules that theyhad agreed upon earlier in the week.

Candidates were given two minutes to respond to questions,followed by a 90-second rebuttal and a 30-second response to therebuttal.

Given the stakes, it was not surprising that the two campaignsnegotiated what amounted to a 32-page contract that covered debatedetails. They ranged from the choice of moderator to the distancebetween the candidate lecterns (10 feet).

Even so, a last-minute controversy flared, as Kerry’s aidesobjected to the placement of timing lights on the lecterns.

Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one pointduring the debate when he said his father, former President GeorgeH.W. Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after theyhad 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 UnitedStates has incurred 90 percent of the casualties and paid 90percent of the cost.

In response, Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigratedU.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aidAfghanistan and Iraq and sent mixed signals.

“What’s his message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for agrand diversion?” Bush said to Kerry’s contention that he couldsummon broader international support for the war. “They’re notgoing to follow someone whose core convictions keep changingbecause of politics.”

In response to one question, Kerry said Bush had misled thecountry on the war by pledging to plan carefully, give diplomacyevery chance to prevail and more. He said bin Laden, the al-Qaidaleader responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had used theinvasion as a recruiting tool for terrorists.