The Associated Press
ALLENTOWN, Pa. - President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry sharpened their attacks over Iraq and the war against terror on Friday, neither willing to give ground after a debate that Republican strategists conceded wasn't the commander in chief's finest moment of the campaign.
"This president made a mistake to rush America to war without a plan to win the peace, and now we're carrying 90 percent of the cost; 90 percent of the coalition casualties are American," Kerry said of a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 U.S. troops.
"The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France," countered Bush, who argued that Kerry "voted against supplying our troops after voting for putting them in harm's way."
The instant polls agreed that Kerry won Thursday night's debate, seen by 62.5 million people - far more than the nearly 47 million who watched the first debate between Bush and Al Gore in 2000. The encounter was dominated by Iraq and the war on terror, and noteworthy for Bush's facial gestures that conveyed annoyance and even disgust at times while his rival spoke.
In contravention of the ground rules the candidates had agreed to, the television networks offered a split screen to viewers so they could see both men at the same time.
Democrats claimed a clear-cut victory from the debate, the first of three planned between Bush and Kerry, and said it would help the challenger overtake the incumbent's lead in the polls in the race's final month.
The campaign "begins now in earnest," said Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "John Kerry took command of the race."
The Democratic National Committee posted a video on its Web site showing Bush grimacing and scowling during the debate. Kerry campaign aides said they were preparing a television commercial that made use of newspaper headlines declaring the four-term Massachusetts senator the winner.
The Republican Party countered with a Web video showing clips of Kerry at the debate and then commenting elsewhere on the same topics, with the aim of portraying him as a flip-flopper.
Nicolle Devenish, spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said the president knew in advance he would be on camera during the entire debate and was aware that the networks had said they would show both men at the same time. "The president reacted honestly. It showed the president really believes in his convictions," she said.
Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, dismissed the instant polls, saying they picked Al Gore as the debate winner over Bush four years ago and showed Ross Perot triumphing over Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
"Instant polls focus not on what people's judgment is, they focus on the fine points of college debating and we're up against a college debater, you expect him to do well," Mehlman said.
Some Bush advisers noted hopefully that there is a history of candidates losing the first debate and winning the election - it has happened in four of the last six presidential elections, said White House strategist Karl Rove.
Republican consultant Joe Gaylord said the debate "has given Kerry an opening to get people to take another look at him." At the same time, he said, he thought any voters turned off by the footage would quickly drift back to Bush.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, campaigning with Bush during the day, said the evening was Kerry's "brightest moment" of the past six weeks. That assessment seemed to displease Bush aides, who arranged a second meeting between the senator and reporters during the day.
This time, McCain said that based on "style points," Kerry had done "very well."
"John Kerry showed significant debating skills. He presented himself very well," McCain said.
He added, "I think what we saw in the president was the steadfast, self-confident, single-minded almost commitment to fighting and winning this war on terror and doing whatever is necessary to protect the people of this country."
Increasingly, that was the core issue of the first presidential campaign since Sept. 11, 2001 - whether Bush or his Democratic challenger could better prosecute the war on terror and protect the nation from another attack.
Kerry campaigned in Florida, lowering his voice at one point to mock Bush's debate claims.
"He keeps trying to say, 'Well, we don't want somebody who wants to leave.' He says, 'We don't want to wilt or waver.' I don't know how many times I heard that.
"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," Kerry said.
Bush flew on Air Force One to Pennsylvania, which he lost in 2000, and then New Hampshire, which he narrowly won, as aides crafted new campaign rhetoric.
Bush's remark about not leaving national security decisions up to the French drew loud cheers in Allentown, Pa., and Mehlman said the president was not concerned it would further fray relations with a country that opposed the invasion of Iraq.
Before an enthusiastic crowd, Bush mocked Kerry's debate comments about a "global test." "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," he said.
In the debate, Kerry said he supported the right of a president to order a pre-emptive strike to protect the country, but said it must pass "the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing."
Bush and Kerry are scheduled to debate twice, on Oct. 8 and 13.
On the Net:
Kerry makes strides to close stature gap
Bush, Kerry still clashing on Iraq
62.5M viewers tuned in for candidates' first showdown
Criticisms mount over election chief's decisions
Fox News pulls item with fake Kerry quotes
Election 2004 page
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