CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush Thursday night of a "colossal error in judgment" in ordering the invasion of Iraq. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein," the president shot back in the campaign debate, adding his rival once said so himself.
"I agree with him," Bush jabbed sarcastically at a challenger he depicts as prone to flip-flops.
In a 90-minute debate dominated by a war that has claimed more than 1,000 American lives, Kerry called the conflict a diversion in the broader struggle against terror and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The four-term Massachusetts senator said he could do a better job than Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept. 11-style attack and pledged to be strong and resolute in fighting terrorism.
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"But we also have to be smart . . . and smart means not diverting our attention from the war on terror and taking it off to Iraq," Kerry said.
"This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there" in Iraq, Kerry said of Bush, standing 10 feet away on a University of Miami debate stage.
Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Kerry as a man who changes his mind too often to be president.
"He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time. . . . I don't think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops?" said the Republican seeking a second term in the White House.
The debate unfolded less than five weeks before the election, with polls showing Bush with a narrow lead and several battleground states exceedingly close. Even some Democrats said the debate, with a national television audience in the tens of millions, represented Kerry's best chance to gain late-campaign momentum.
Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their face-to-face encounter, but this was the first time each had to listen to the criticism at close quarters.
Bush appeared perturbed when Kerry leveled some of his charges, scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others. Kerry often took notes when the president spoke. Some networks offered a split screen to viewers so they could see both men at the same time and watch their reactions.
Bush and Kerry also differed over North Korea, Iran and Russia in a debate limited to foreign policy and terrorism.
Kerry charged that North Korea and Iran both have advanced their nuclear weapons programs during the Bush administration. "As president I'll never take my eye off that ball," the senator said.
Bush said he believed that a diplomatic initiative currently under way could solve the crisis with North Korea. "On Iran, I hope we can do the same," the president said.
Bush said that with North Korea, he would continue to pursue a strategy that involves the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in talks with North Korea to defuse the problem. Kerry advocated bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea to find a solution.
Kerry voiced concerns about conditions in Russia, saying that crackdowns initiated by President Vladimir Putin go beyond what's necessary to combat terror.
Bush said he had a good personal relationship with Putin that "enables me to better comment to him and the better to discuss with him some of the decisions he makes." Bush said Russia was a country in transition and that would remind Putin "of the great benefits of democracy."
Not long before Bush and Kerry strode on stage, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against insurgents in Samarra. The U.S. command said government and police buildings had been secured in the city.
The two men clashed time and again over Iraq and the broader war on terror.
Kerry said he had a four-part plan to battle terrorists and said Bush's could be summed up in four words — "More of the same."
"You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror," retorted the president.
Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one point during the debate when he said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after they had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway, without an exit strategy, and under conditions that mean the United States has incurred "90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the cost."
In response, Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigrated U.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aid Afghanistan and Iraq and sent mixed signals.
"What's his message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion?" Bush said to Kerry's contention that he could summon broader international support for the war. "They're not going to follow someone whose core convictions keep changing because of politics."
Kerry conceded a mistake on one point but implied it paled next to the one he accused Bush of making.
"You know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?
Kerry also said Bush erred when he defended the invasion of Iraq by saying "The enemy attacked us."
"Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al-Qaida attacked us," Kerry said.
Given the stakes, it was not surprising that the two campaigns negotiated what amounted to a 32-page contract that covered debate details. They ranged from the choice of moderator (Jim Lehrer of PBS) to the distance between the candidate lecterns (10 feet).
Even so, a last-minute controversy flared as Kerry's aides objected to the placement of timing lights on the lecterns.