Debating the first debate
Campaigns assess candidates' performances
CORAL GABLES, Florida (CNN) -- Pundits, pollsters and political operatives worked furiously to answer one question after the first debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry -- who won?
Much of the 90-minute debate on international policy issues focused on the war in Iraq and the war on terror. But the candidates also fielded questions on nuclear proliferation -- particularly in Iran and North Korea --and the situation in Darfur, Sudan, which both men agreed was genocide. (Key points of the debate; Transcripts of the debate questions and answers)
In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey of 615 registered voters who watched the debate, most said Kerry did the better job and almost half said the debate made them think more favorably of Kerry. (Special Report: America Votes, 2004, the debates)
By narrow margins, Bush came out better on believability, likeability and toughness. But there was virtually no change among those polled on which candidate would handle Iraq better or make a better commander-in-chief. (America Votes 2004: Pundits' Scorecard)
The poll does not statistically represent the views of all Americans, because it only questioned people who watched the debate -- a group that is often more partisan than the general public.(Poll: Kerry tops Bush in debate)
It is also unclear how much impact the debates would have. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, 18 percent of registered voters said the debates would make a difference. (How to read poll results)
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett dismissed the snapshot poll as just that, a snapshot, and said Friday that Bush laid out his record, as well as his strategy and resolve to win the war on terror.
"Again last night we heard a very conflicted Senator Kerry who talked about mistakes and trying to say his decisions, his inconsistencies on Iraq were actually consistent, which is hard to believe," Bartlett said. "But also that someone who is so conflicted is going to have a difficult time convincing the American people that he has a strategy to win in Iraq."
Sen. John Edwards told CNN's "American Morning" on Friday that his running mate showed the contrast between his policies and Bush's.
"I think what we saw in John Kerry last night was a strength of conviction, a vision that we want to see in the president of the United States," Edwards said. "I think he looked and sounded like a commander-in-chief. to be honest with you, I think the American people saw the John Kerry that I know. This man is ready to keep this country safe. He is ready to finish the job and be successful in Iraq."
After the debate, reaction from Bush and Kerry supporters was quick, and fairly predictable.
Advisers to both campaigns said their opponents missed an important opportunity.
"Senator Kerry had one bar to meet coming into this debate and that is he had to establish some type of credibility on the issue of Iraq," Bush adviser Karen Hughes said. "Not only did he fail to do that, but he further undermined his own credibility."
Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry said that "President Bush had an opportunity tonight to say, 'Look ... things aren't going very well in Iraq and we did make some miscalculations and misjudgments there,' but he is so stubbornly arrogant -- he just sticks with that same formula that he has in talking about the war on Iraq that just defies the reality that we all see on the ground."
Sen. John McCain (R- Arizona), who is a Bush supporter but also a friend of John Kerry, said 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 "Larry King Live."
David Gergen, a former adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, said that Thursday's stakes were very high for Kerry.
"It seemed to me ... coming into this debate that John Kerry was in a position that if they'd lost this debate the ball game was basically over," Gergen said. "I don't think he was a clear winner. I don't think there was a clear winner tonight. But I do think he got back in the game. It could make for a tighter race."
A number of overseas pundits said that Kerry seemed to get the best of the debate, but said that both candidates avoided making major gaffes that could be used against them. (World seems to think Kerry won)
Bush defended his decision to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, saying the sacrifice made by 1,059 U.S. troops who have been killed in Iraq was "noble and worthy" and would make the country safer in the long term.
"We're being challenged like never before, and we have a duty to our country and to future generations of Americans to achieve a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan and to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction," Bush said.
Very early in the debate, the president conceded that he understood "everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made, and I've made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand."
Again and again during the debate, Bush charged that Kerry's inconsistent positions on the Iraq war -- after voting for a congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force -- would make it difficult for him to function as commander-in-chief, taking particular aim at Kerry's recent statement that Iraq was the "wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time."
"The way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved," said Bush, who at one point cracked that the only thing consistent about Kerry's position on Iraq "is that he's been inconsistent."
However, Kerry insisted that despite the president's assertions to the contrary, "I've had one position -- one consistent position -- that Saddam Hussein was a threat. There was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way, and the president chose the wrong way."
Kerry said that the invasion of Iraq was an ill-conceived adventure that's "getting worse by the day" and has distracted the United States from the fight against terrorism, which Kerry insisted he could win to by fighting a smarter war.
"Smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq,'" Kerry said. "This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America."
Asked to enumerate those errors of judgment, Kerry said Bush didn't "exhaust the remedies of the United Nations" before invading Iraq, broke his promise that "he would go to war as a last resort" and "pushed our allies aside."
At one point in the debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush if the Iraq experience would make him more reluctant to launch preemptive military operations in the future. In response, the president insisted that he "never wanted to commit troops" but did so because "the enemy attacked us ... and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people."
That brought a quick retort from Kerry.
"Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us," he said.
Bush and Kerry agreed that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction were the greatest threat to the United States.
But they differed sharply on how to handle North Korea's nuclear aspirations.
Kerry said the U.S. should open bilateral talks with North Korea in addition to talks with the current coalition of nations -- the U.S. and five of North Korea's neighbors.
Bush said that was a bad idea.
"It's not going to work if we open up a dialogue with Kim Jong Il," Bush said. "He wants to unravel the six-party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message."
North Korea has refused international demands that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program after agreeing during the Clinton administration to do so.
A second debate is set for October 8 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in front of a group of undecided voters.
A third debate scheduled for October 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, is expected to focus on economic and domestic policy.
A vice presidential debate is set for October 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
CNN correspondents Dan Lothian, Dana Bash, John King, Candy Crowley Richard Shumate and Ed Payne contributed to this report.