CORAL GABLES, Fla. — President Bush last night accused Sen. John Kerry of sending “mixed messages” tantamount to admitting defeat in Iraq, a conflict that his rival called “a colossal error in judgment” and a diversion from the war on terror.
“Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it,” Mr. Kerry said in the first of three presidential debates. “He rushed to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace. Now that is not the judgment that a president of the United States ought to make.”
Mr. Bush countered that his rival has taken different positions on whether the Iraq war was justified, calling into question the Massachusetts senator’s fitness to serve as president.
“What kind of message does it say to our troops in harm’s way: ‘Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time’?” Mr. Bush asked, reprising a standard line in Mr. Kerry’s stump speech. “That’s not a message a commander in chief gives. Or this is ‘a great diversion.’”
“Help is on the way, but it’s certainly hard to tell it when he voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it,” he said.
He returned several times to his theme that Mr. Kerry is too unreliable and inconsistent to lead the country.
“That’s not what commander in chiefs [do] when you’re trying to lead troops,” he said.
Both men were on the same stage for the first time in this campaign and the 90-minute debate at the University of Miami turned into an intricate discussion of foreign policy — down to the level of Iraqi troops trained so far, the type of negotiations that should take place with North Korea about its nuclear ambitions and whether the killings in Sudan qualify as genocide.
Both men also stayed true to their intended messages, hewing to talking points honed over weeks of debate preparation, and there were neither any major punches landed or major gaffes committed.
Mr. Kerry was direct in his charges and wielded a wide array of facts in accusing the president of failing to secure America at home and endangering it by pursuing the war in Iraq.
“Yes, I do,” he said tersely in answer to the first question of the debate — whether he thought he could “do a better job” than the president in protecting America from terrorist attacks.
“I think we can succeed, but I don’t think this president can,” he said. “I can make America safer than President Bush has made us.”
The president occasionally took his time to organize his answers, choosing his words carefully, at times, pausing several seconds as he looked into the cameras.
He, too, showed strong command of international affairs and knowledge of international leaders — considered a weakness four years ago heading into the debates against Al Gore in 2000. He was pugnacious at times, taking charge and telling moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS at one point that he should be entitled to respond to one of Mr. Kerry’s answers.
Mr. Bush’s theme of the night was his assertion that Mr. Kerry’s mixed messages are confusing everyone.