US President George W. Bush sharpened attacks on Sen. John Kerry’s Iraq war strategy Friday as the rivals campaigned in key states a day after the Democrat’s strong showing in their first debate.
Bush used language that was often harsher than when he was face to face with Kerry, seizing on his foe’s comment that preemptive US military action like the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein ought to pass a “global test” for legitimacy.
“The President’s job is not to take an international poll. The President’s job is to defend America,” the Republican incumbent said. “The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France.”
Bush’s comment, made to cheering supporters in the crucial up-for-grabs state of Pennsylvania, aimed to stoke still smoldering anger among Republicans over France’s opposition to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Aides to Kerry, who was on a two-day swing aimed at converting postdebate momentum into votes in Florida, countered that the President had taken his comments out of context and diagnosed the move as desperation.
“If you rely on a half-sentence to attack your opponent, it’s proof you’re not telling the whole truth, you’re distorting a debate you lost,” said Kerry spokesman David Wade. “It’s evidence of how much their candidate is flailing.”
As tens of millions of Americans watched, Kerry said in Thursday’s debate that he would not become the first President in US history to give up the right to launch preemptive military action to defend the United States.
“But if and when you do it . . . you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons,” he added.
Kerry, who snap polls said won the debate, also branded Bush’s invasion of Iraq “a colossal error in judgment,” assailed his postwar plan, and vowed to convene a summit to mobilize more help for stabilizing that war-torn country.
“I’ve been to a lot of summits,” Bush said derisively at a rally in the battleground state of Pennsylvania Friday. “I’ve never seen a meeting that would depose a tyrant, or bring a terrorist to justice.”
The President also wooed voters in New Hampshire, working to preserve a steady lead in national polls and a thin edge in many of the undecided states that will decide the November 2 election.
Kerry, meanwhile, hoped to capitalize on solid reviews of his performance in the first of three debates to turn around what had been a flagging campaign, and aides exulted over instant polls suggesting the US public thought he had beaten Bush.
A Gallup poll for CNN gave Kerry a 46-percent-to-37-percent win over the President, but the survey said Bush still had the support of 51 percent of voters against 47 percent for Kerry.
Taking aim at Bush’s charges that he would turn tail from Iraq, Kerry told supporters here: “Nobody’’s talking about wilting and wavering. We’re talking about winning and getting the job done right.”
Experts warned that early postdebate polls tend to have high error margins, and that it will take days to get an accurate assessment of the exchange’s impact on what is one of the hardest fought campaigns in recent US history.
But many also agreed that the close-fought debate raised the stakes for the second presidential face-off, set for October 8. A third is scheduled for October 13.
National security was the agreed-upon theme and Iraq dominated as the two candidates battled over how to stabilize that war-torn country, where more than 1,000 US soldiers have died amid deadly chaos that shows no sign of ebbing.
The two also clashed on approaches to the North Korean nuclear crisis—Bush warning against Kerry’s call for bilateral talks—and to Iran’s nuclear program and how to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
But both agreed that the most serious threat to US national security was the possibility that terrorists from al-Qaeda or other groups might get their hands on nuclear materials.
Sen. John McCain, a Bush supporter and 2000 Republican Party presidential hopeful, said he thought it was a good debate.
“I thought that John Kerry did a good job style-wise. I think that the President was very convincing in his conviction that what he has done is right, what he will do is correct,” McCain said on CNN.
Asked a day later whether he agreed with the Bush campaign that the United States would be less safe if Kerry were elected, McCain replied: “No. I believe that both President Bush and Senator Kerry would be good fine presidents.”
But he added that Bush, “because of his experience, because of his proven effective leadership, is more qualified and in my view has earned the confidence and therefore the reelection of the American people.”