ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A day after their first debate, President Bush yesterday lashed John Kerry for continuing a “pattern of confusing contradictions,” calling his Democratic opponent unqualified to lead the war against international terrorism.
In a new offensive against the Massachusetts senator, who many political pundits said won the first showdown, the president pointed out a slew of issues on which Mr. Kerry has tried to have it “both ways.”
Mr. Bush said he would never submit America’s security to a “global test,” as he said Mr. Kerry had advocated during Thursday’s debate in Miami.
“He wants our national security decisions subject to the approval of a foreign government,” Mr. Bush said. “Listen, I’ll continue to work with our allies and the international community, but I will never submit America’s national security to an international test. The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France,” he said to thunderous applause.
Mr. Kerry shot back during a rally in Tampa, Fla., saying Mr. Bush is mischaracterizing his positions on Iraq, including his stance on whether he would seek to immediately pull out American troops.
“He keeps trying to say, ‘Well, we don’t want somebody who wants to leave, we don’t want to wilt or waver,’” Mr. Kerry said. “Well, Mr. President, nobody’s talking about leaving, nobody’s talking about wilting and wavering; we’re talking about winning and getting the job done right. Let’s have the real debate.”
Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart said his boss “clearly won the debate,” adding, “it was an uneven debate from President Bush.”
Recalling coverage of the first debate in 2000 between then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, which focused primarily on Mr. Gore’s loud sighs throughout Mr. Bush’s answers, Mr. Lockhart said the president hurt himself “with what I’ll call ‘The Smirk.’”
“He seemed agitated, annoyed, fidgety and looking like there was no place in the world he’d rather not be than in that debate,” the spokesman said in a conference call with reporters.
The Democratic National Committee yesterday put out a video showing Mr. Bush in a series of what it said were “smirks.” The Republican National Committee countered with a video of statements made by Mr. Kerry in Thursday night’s debate alongside the earlier statements they contradict.
Senior adviser Karl Rove, who accompanied Mr. Bush on his trip yesterday, said the president had not been irritated during the debate. “That wasn’t irritated. I know irritated.”
Instead, he said Mr. Bush was “pensive” and “focused.”
The president criticized Mr. Kerry’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq and his later vote against a bill to provide $87 billion to fund the war — which only 11 other senators opposed.
“Last night, Senator Kerry only continued his pattern of confusing contradictions. After voting for the war, after saying my decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision, he now says it was all a mistake,” Mr. Bush told 2,000 people gathered yesterday in a sun-bathed park.
“But asked a logical question, ‘Does that mean our troops are dying for a mistake?’” Mr. Bush asked, with the audience of staunch supporters interrupting him, yelling “No!”
“That’s what he said, ‘no,’” the president said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say it’s a mistake and not a mistake. You can’t be for getting rid of Saddam Hussein when things look good, and against it when times are hard.”
Mr. Bush also ridiculed Mr. Kerry’s contention — repeated several times during Thursday’s debate — that the war in Iraq is not “the center of the focus of the war on terror.” Mr. Kerry also has criticized the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, saying it is clearly unsuccessful because terrorists are flooding into Iraq to fight U.S.-led coalition forces.
“You can’t claim terrorists are pouring across the border into Iraq, yet at the same time try to claim that Iraq is somehow a diversion for war against terrorism. The president cannot keep changing his mind. The president must speak clearly. And the president must mean what he says,” Mr. Bush said.
At his rallies in Tampa and Kissimmee, Fla., Mr. Kerry showed a newfound confidence, standing at the edge of the stage and forcefully speaking to the crowd.
The Kerry campaign said Mr. Bush missed a fundamental turning point in the campaign two weeks ago, when Mr. Kerry came out strongly against the Iraq war, though he said once committed the United States must remain engaged.
“We were surprised that [Mr. Bush] thought he could just say the same things he’s been saying,” said Kerry adviser Mike McCurry. “We turned a corner when we gave that speech at NYU.”
Mr. Bush also ridiculed Mr. Kerry’s four-point plan on Iraq, which calls for the United States to convene a summit of allies to discuss how to restore security and rebuild the war-torn country.
“I’ve been to a lot of summits. I’ve never seen a meeting that would depose a tyrant or bring a terrorist to justice,” he said.
Arizona Sen. John McCain rode along in Air Force One to the Pennsylvania event, and one later yesterday in Manchester, N.H., where the president delivered essentially the same speech. Mr. McCain said the summit idea just won’t work.
“Summits don’t make peace. … Nobody believes the French and Germans will come to help.”
The former presidential candidate also said Mr. Kerry “came out slugging” Thursday night.
“Obviously he’s an accomplished debater … In the last six weeks, it was probably his brightest moment,” Mr. McCain said.
Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman also said Mr. Kerry did well in the debate. “We always expected him to be an articulate debater,” he said.
But he predicted that as the news media examine Mr. Kerry’s remarks, the instant decision by press pundits that Mr. Kerry won will unravel.
“What happened last night was that John Kerry went in with a credibility gap and went out with a credibility canyon,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Kerry’s performance reignited what was waning enthusiasm among Democratic supporters in general and among aides on Capitol Hill who were anxiously awaiting the debate.
“Everybody’s stopping each other in the hallway, whispering to each other, ‘Wasn’t that great?’” said Jim Manley, a staffer for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Kerry’s fellow Massachusetts Democrat.
Tad Devine, one of Mr. Kerry’s advisers, said Thursday night reminded him of Mr. Kerry’s strong closing performances in the early Democratic primaries.
“He really genuinely finds a way to connect with voters, particularly persuadable voters,” Mr. Devine said. “I think that was on display last night, and it’s something we all saw back in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Despite his success in the debate, Mr. Kerry continued to show some of his usual foibles in his stump speech yesterday, at one point stepping on what was supposed to be a new line of attack.
“We didn’t get a chance to really debate it last night because it was at the end of answer — but get this,” the senator said as he prepared an assault on Mr. Bush’s claim that Mr. Kerry would create a ‘tax gap’ by promising too many programs.
But instead of finishing the line, Mr. Kerry went into a long series of steps he would take to fight terrorism, including a discussion of terrorist watch lists and a new national intelligence director. A minute and a half later, he seemed to return to the attack, saying, “raised the subject last night.”
He then went into another minute-long discussion of examining containers coming into ports in Florida, before completing his attack on Mr. Bush:
“You have to hear this — he says, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to pay for all that, you’re going to have a tax gap.’ My friends, this is a president who created a tax gap by providing a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans instead of investing in homeland security in the United States.”
Joseph Curl was traveling with President Bush yesterday in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Stephen Dinan was with Sen. John Kerry in Florida.