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.
"Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens," he said.
Mr. Bush finessed Mr. Lehrer's question about whether America would be less safe under a President Kerry, saying instead with an air of confidence, "I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win."
Several times, Mr. Bush laid out a series of statements from Mr. Kerry indicating past support for the war and for removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Mr. Kerry defended his vote for the war in October 2002 as the right way to put pressure on Iraq to disarm and said his vote against the $87 billion to fund the war was a statement about the way the war was going, much like his protests against the Vietnam War.
"I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right. That's what I learned in Vietnam," said Mr. Kerry, who served as a Navy lieutenant there and returned to join protests against the war, once describing American soldiers as guilty of war crimes. "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 no. But I did. And that's what I did with that vote."
Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush's tax cuts and the $200 billion price tag for the war on terror so far have meant that the president hasn't been able to spend enough on homeland security.
"Ninety-five percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected," he said. "Civilians get onto aircraft and their luggage is X-rayed, but the cargo hold is not X-rayed. Does that make you feel safer in America?"
Mr. Bush said Mr. Kerry's international policies ignore the realities of the world after the terrorism attacks.
"September 11 changed how America must look at the world," Mr. Bush said, citing, among other examples, Mr. Kerry's contention that U.N. weapons inspectors could have contained Saddam.
"My opponent talks about inspectors. The facts are that [Saddam] was systematically deceiving the inspectors. That wasn't going to work. That's kind of a pre-September 10th mentality, to hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place," he said.
Mr. Kerry, though, challenged Mr. Bush's fundamental view of the conflict and questioned whether the president grasps what is going on in Iraq.
"This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there," Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Bush seemed to delight in accusing Mr. Kerry of subjugating U.S. interests to that of other nations.
He said that difference is clearest on the International Criminal Court, which Mr. Bush said he refuses to join but Mr. Kerry has said he supports.
"This is a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors could pull our troops, our diplomats up for trial. And I wouldn't join it," he said.
"I just think trying to be popular kind of in the global sense, if it's not in our best interest, makes no sense," he said.
Mr. Kerry retorted that the respect of those other nations is critical to U.S. security.
"You don't help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global warming treaty, for instance, or when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations," he said. "You have to earn that respect. And I think we have a lot of earning back to do."
However, he said, "I'll never give a veto to any country over our security."
Absent from yesterday's debate were any of the charges about Mr. Kerry's war medals -- three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and Silver Star -- and Mr. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard -- charges that dominated press coverage of the campaign throughout August.
New polls yesterday showed Mr. Bush building on the lead that he took coming out of the Republican National Convention at the start of September.
A Los Angeles Times poll released yesterday put the president up by 51 percent to 45 percent; a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released earlier this week gave Mr. Bush a 52 percent to 44 percent lead.
Instant polls for several networks showed that viewers thought Mr. Kerry "won" the debate, which actually resembled more of a joint press conference. The Gallup-CNN poll gave him a 53 percent to 37 percent advantage over Mr. Bush, and the ABC poll gave him a 45 percent to 36 percent advantage.
Last night's debate grew contentious even before the candidates took the stage. In a walk-through of the debate hall early in the day, senior Kerry aides demanded that the small lights on the candidates' podiums, used to signal when a speaker's time had expired, be removed.
The Kerry team argued that the 32-page pre-debate "memorandum of understanding" between the two campaigns did not specify where the lights should be.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is overseeing the events, refused. The Kerry campaign eventually relented and allowed the lights to stay.
"It hasn't been as big a deal as reporters have made it," Kerry aide David Morehouse told reporters covering Mr. Kerry's pre-debate visit.
The Bush camp had insisted on the lights in hopes of showing television viewers that Mr. Kerry -- known for his verbosity -- could not adhere to the time limit for answering questions.
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, riffed off one of Mr. Kerry's statements about his mixed voting record on the Iraq war: "Only John Kerry could be for the lights before he was against the lights."
The next debate will be between Vice President Dick Cheney and the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, on Tuesday in Cleveland.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush will debate two more times -- Oct. 8 in St. Louis, and again Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz. The St. Louis debate will be a town-hall forum, and the Arizona debate will focus on domestic policy.
After the debate Mr. Bush spoke to 3,500 people at a debate-watching party at an exposition center nearby, telling them: "Anything worthwhile on TV tonight? I enjoyed it, I had a good time up there talking about what I believe. It's not all that hard to debate if you know what's in your heart and know where you want to lead this country."