In a debate highlighting broad differences in foreign-policy vision and personal style, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry clashed directly and repeatedly over the war in Iraq, with Senator Kerry calling the president's decision to invade a costly diversion from the war on terror and Mr. Bush defending his move as essential to America's defense.
At the same time, both men sought to use Iraq as a lens into a debate over character. Kerry portrayed Bush's policy as evidence of his impatience and inexperience. Bush labeled Kerry's criticism as unpresidential and inconsistent with his previous statements.
Throughout the 90-minute debate, held in the critical battleground state of Florida, Kerry offered some of his sharpest criticism yet of the Iraq invasion - gambling, perhaps, that the costs of once again being labeled a "flip-flopper" would be outweighed by the benefits of trying to hold Bush accountable for a policy that is increasingly unpopular among many Americans.
In blunter language than he has often used on the campaign trail, Kerry sought to separate the Iraq conflict from the war on terror, portraying it as a misguided invasion that has stretched America's military and sapped resources. "Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us," he said. Pouncing on Bush's statement that Iraq was the center of the war on terror, he said: "Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it."
For his part, Bush argued, as he has for months, that Saddam Hussein represented a serious and mounting threat - and that the effort to spread liberty in the Middle East is an essential step to stem terrorism. He also charged that, by calling the Iraq effort a "diversion," Kerry was sending the wrong message to the troops in the field and to other nations.
The debate, which analysts estimated would be watched by as many as 50 million Americans, was seen by many as a critical moment for Kerry, who has been running behind Bush in most polls, to try to shift the dynamics of the race. It was also likely the senator's final opportunity to reintroduce himself to many voters who are just now tuning in to the presidential race. While polls have shown Bush holding a steady lead, they have also hinted at a lingering potential for volatility, with some 20 percent of likely voters saying the debates could have a strong influence on their eventual decision.
The candidates presented diverging views on a number of topics, such as how to deal with the nuclear threat in North Korea (Kerry would reinstate bilateral negotiations; Bush says that tactic would backfire). Kerry argued Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy have depleted funds for homeland security, while Bush charged Kerry with offering a range of expensive proposals without explaining how he would pay for them.
But it was on Iraq - the issue that has, more than any other, dominated and shaped this campaign - that the candidates aired their sharpest distinctions.
One underlying battle between the candidates was the effort to sell themselves as the more experienced and competent leader on the world stage and at home. Bush subtly used his incumbency to his advantage, working in several references to meetings with foreign leaders, and offering an emotional anecdote about praying with the wife of a serviceman killed in Iraq. Kerry presented himself as having greater expertise on issues such as nuclear proliferation, arguing he had been dealing with foreign leaders for 20 years.
Going into the debate, Kerry was lagging well behind Bush on key characteristics such as whom voters regarded as a strong leader. In the "spin room" after the debate, Kerry advisers argued their candidate came across as more presidential in demeanor than the president.
"America tonight has begun this process of looking at John Kerry and saying he can be commander in chief," said adviser Joe Lockhart.
They also argued that Kerry's demeanor would serve as the best response to the "caricatured" image of him put forth by the Bush campaign.
But Bush advisers responded that the Massachusetts senator not only failed to get out from under the "flip-flop" label, but compounded it in the course of the debate, by calling the Iraq war a mistake and then, when asked if US soldiers were dying for a mistake, said no.
"He contradicted himself on key things he'd said earlier," said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
This was the first of three presidential debates set to take place over the next two weeks. The second will be a town-hall style meeting in Missouri, while the final face-off in Arizona will focus on domestic policy. A vice-presidential debate takes place this coming Tuesday in Ohio.