Bush and Kerry meet in first of three debates
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Sen. John Kerry summed up President Bush’s plan for Iraq in four words – “More of the same” – and thus neatly laid out the choice facing voters Nov. 2: Stick with the incumbent or take a leap of faith with a newcomer.
In the first of three presidential debates, Kerry talked tough on terror. But was he strong enough? He curbed his long-winded ways. But was he clear enough? He said the commander in chief “is not getting the job done.” But could Kerry do any better?
No, answered Bush, who reminded voters at every turn that he is already president – “I understand what it means to be commander in chief” – and cast Kerry as a dangerous alternative. “As the politics change, his positions changed,” Bush said of Kerry’s position on Iraq, “And that’s not how a commander in chief acts.”
Millions of voters watched how the current commander in chief acted under constant drumbeat from Kerry for 90 minutes. Bush fought back, often repeating poll-tested lines, and did little to disguise his irritation – pinching his lips in a tight scowl or biting on the insides of his cheek.
“I’m disappointed in the president’s performance,” said Allan Ramsey, a 67-year-old retiree who told The Associated Press before the debate that he was leaning toward Bush. “I didn’t make much sense of the president’s answers.”
Angered by the situation in Iraq and the state of the U.S. economy, the Hedgesville, W.Va., man said last week he was open to change in the White House but found Kerry unappealing. That changed Thursday night. “I was looking for reasons to maybe vote for Kerry, and I think I found them – the point he made about us going to Iraq for the wrong reason, and we don’t really have a solution.”
Pam Russell, a 55-year-old retiree from Detroit who went into the debate undecided, said afterward she’s leaning toward Kerry. “Bush looked real nervous,” she said. “Bush was mad. He kept frowning.”
“I think Bush, he kept using the same spin and rhetoric instead of him saying something different than he’s been saying all the time,” she said.
Political professionals offered more tempered assessments.
Democratic strategist Jim Duffy said Bush forced Kerry to agree with him on broad policies – such as embracing the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes in some circumstances and asserting that the United States cannot pull out of Iraq.
“So that left him debating the minutia,” Duffy said, “and I’m not sure how that plays in America.”
Like the president, Kerry stuck with phrases and slogans that were carefully pre-tested. “I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are,” he said.
Yes, he once said he voted both for war funding and against it – a rhetorical gaffe, Kerry called it, “but the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”
The president, in a rare flash of contrition, said he understands that not every American agrees with the decisions he’s made, including tough ones like going to war. “But people know where I stand,” he said, suggesting they don’t know where Kerry stands. “People out there listening know what I believe.”
With a record of four years in office to defend, Bush had to balance a message of optimism against hard realities: A majority of Americans feel the nation is on the wrong track and more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq.
Against these vulnerabilities, Bush made the case that he is a decisive leader who can be trusted to do what he thinks is right, even when unpopular. He cast Kerry as just the opposite: A flip-flopping opportunist with no political soul.
Just as he was coached in pre-debate workouts with his staff, Bush used Kerry’s own words as ammunition.
“I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place,” the president said. “What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?”
Kerry’s foremost goal was to look consistent and strong enough to be commander in chief. He ran to the right of the Republican incumbent on Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Russia – in each case saying he would stand tall against threats ignored by Bush at the nation’s potential peril.
Kerry’s second challenge was to make the election a referendum on Bush’s record rather than on personal qualities such as leadership style and decisiveness, the terrain upon which the president fares better with the public. It was not just that Bush failed on Iraq and other issues, Kerry said, it’s that he won’t admit it. He doesn’t get it. Or doesn’t care.
Some of his strategic goals conflicted. Did he come across as likable? Did he effectively attack the president? And can he do both at once?
Voters will decide that when they determine whether to stick with the status quo or take the risk that comes with change.
Ron Fournier has covered presidential politics since 1992.