First round of presidential debates hits on Iraq War, safety abroad

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON — Ending the war in Iraq and protecting American soil were at the forefront of the first presidential debate, held Thursday at the University of Miami.

With a tone of conviction, President George W. Bush questioned Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry’s ability to lead America’s troops in Iraq.

“What message is the Senator sending to our troops by calling the war the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bush said criticizing Kerry’s commitment to U.S. armed forces. “I’ve shown the American people I know how to lead. I know everyone in this country doesn’t agree with the decisions I’ve made, but at least people know where I stand and what I believe … to defeat the ideology of hatred.”

But Kerry charged that the president has made “grave mistakes” and isn’t fit to lead the country for another term. The Massachusetts Senator said he plans to start bringing the troops home within six months.

“I believe in being strong, resolute and determined. I will hunt down and kill terrorists wherever they are,” Kerry said of his plan for the future in Iraq. “But we have to be smart — we can’t divert our attention from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden. The president has made a colossal error in judgment. I would make a stronger commander in chief because I would not take my eye off the goal.”

Jim Lehrer, host of The NewsHour on PBS, moderated the debate, posing questions to both candidates not only about their foreign policies but about what misjudgments the current administration has made in fighting the war at home.

“Every life is precious. Every life matters. The hardest part of this job is knowing that I’ve put our troops in harms way,” Bush said. “But the best way to protect our country is to stay on the offensive.”

Kerry responded by criticizing the president for entering the war without the support of crucial allies worldwide, citing that 90 percent of all casualties in Iraq are American soldiers.

“Saddam Hussein was a threat, he needed to be disarmed, but the President should have gone to the U.N. to do it,” Kerry said, adding that Iraq is not the real threat to U.S. security.

The only issue the two men agreed on was the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Kerry said he would immediately engage in multilateral talks with North Korea.

Bush said Kerry’s plan was a “huge mistake,” saying that denying China leverage could have a catastrophic affect on world security.

While Bush stood steadfast on the policies he has implemented over the last four years and his ability to lead for another term, Kerry classified the president’s actions as unilateral and ineffective.

“I defended this country as a young man in war and I will defend it as president of the United States. We need a fresh start and a president who can bring allies to our side,” Kerry said.

But Bush rebutted, “We are going to win this war in Iraq under my leadership. The enemy attacked us and it is my solemn duty to protect America.”

Bush and Kerry both began their opening statements by sending their thoughts and prayers to the victims of the four hurricanes that ripped through all parts of Florida over the past two months. Students around the country paid close attention to the debates.

“Bush was effective in portraying Kerry as someone who does not hold a firm position,” said Brian Rozental, a junior international affairs major at The George Washington University and a Florida voter. “While he may not have presented a detailed answer to every question, I do think he provided a firm idea of his beliefs and was more forthcoming with his views this year then he was in 2000.”

“I like that Kerry talked about his military service,” said Jarod Krissman, a recent graduate from the University of Washington with a degree in foreign policy. “It is something Bush can never comment on.”

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