Iraq dominates first debate

In the first of three nationally televised debates before the Nov. 2 election, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry’s remarks may have sounded familiar.

The candidates hit many of the same points their campaigns have promoted for months, with little new ground covered.

Bush stuck with the Republican Party’s “flip-flopper” image of Kerry, repeatedly pointing out what he called inconsistencies in Kerry’s Senate voting record. Kerry, the president said, is too easily swayed by politics.

“The only thing consistent about my opponent is that he is inconsistent,” Bush said.

Bush also said Kerry sent a mixed message to soldiers in Iraq.

“They are not going to follow someone who says this is the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place,” he said.

Kerry, the Democratic nominee, repeatedly questioned Bush’s decision go to war in Iraq. Bush, he said, misled the American public when he said the war was a last resort for the administration.

“Even knowing there was no imminent threat, even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction … he still would have done it. Those are his own words,” Kerry said of Bush.

Kerry was also critical of Bush’s attempt to tie Iraq to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“(Former security advisor to the president) Richard Clark said, ‘Invading Iraq in response to 9/11 would be like Franklin Roosevelt invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor,'” Kerry said.

Even with Bush and Kerry hitting many of the same points they have been attacking since campaigning started, USF political science professor and analyst Susan MacManus said she thinks the debate offered a good chance for viewers to distinguish between the candidates. She said it was a good forum for voters to see the differences.

“The most dramatic aspect of this debate was the clear sharp contrast that they made with each other,” MacManus said.

She added that while there was no clear winner, the debate did reiterate the importance of leadership to the election.

“Each of them had their moments during the debate,” she said. “But in the end, it all comes down to what the American public feels like about leadership and which one they think will make a strong leader.”

The format of the debate allowed each candidate two minutes to answer a question. The other candidate was then given 30 seconds for rebuttal, with an optional extra 30 seconds for each candidate after that at the moderator’s discretion.

MacManus called the format and question selection excellent, saying the candidates had to face a wide variety of inquiries.

“The questions didn’t really get them go just wherever they wanted to go. It was clear the questions were not scripted, and neither were the answers. It was a good chance for America to see how each candidate does thinking on his feet,” she said.

Other issues included funding for the Iraq war and Bush’s plan for peace in post-war Iraq. Kerry said Bush rushed to war with no plan for restoring the country, but Bush argued that things happened faster than his administration had anticipated and it altered the strategy.

“Because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam supporters were still in Iraq disrupting attempts to install democracy there,” Bush said.

“This war has cost $200 billion dollars, $200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for prescription drugs for seniors,” Kerry said.

Kerry also criticized Bush for cutting police and firefighting units domestically while building up the same forces in Iraq. Bush responded by calling renewal of the USA Patriot Act “vital” to keeping American intelligence forces strong and protecting the country.

Kerry, who called nuclear proliferation the single greatest threat to American security, attacked Bush’s lack of action against North Korea, which has built up its own stock of weapons of mass destruction.

Bush replied by saying he had tried diplomacy, but North Korea did not live up to its end of an agreement by maintaining the weapons.

Bush also emphasized his experience as a leader and commander in chief, saying America needs a strong leader who is not afraid to stand up for what is best for America.

In response, Kerry said Bush has lost credibility among world leaders and that a change was necessary to try and restore that credibility.

Next Thursday, the candidates will meet in St. Louis for the second debate in a town hall-styled forum. The third and final debate will be held in Tempe, Ariz. on Oct. 13.