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Elections 2004:  First Presidential Debate Focused on Foreign Policy - 2004-10-01

With less than five weeks until the U-S presidential election, George Bush and John Kerry squared off Thursday night in their first televised debate. The topic -- foreign policy. V-O-A's Jeffrey Young examines the debate and how it will impact the race for the White House.

Although the two candidates touched on issues such as North Korea's and Iran's nuclear weapons programs and the carnage in the Darfur region of Sudan, it was the war in Iraq and its aftermath, and the war on terrorism that dominated the debate.

President Bush linked the war in Iraq to the war on terrorism. But Senator Kerry accused the President of not living up to his pledge that war would be a last resort. Mr. Bush strongly defended his actions in Iraq and then expanded it to the broader war on terror, saying that by not wavering, he will ensure victory: "If I were to ever say this is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place, you cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror."

Senator Kerry moved to break the President's linkage of the Iraq war and the fight against terror by saying that the war only made the threat of terror greater: "The president just talked about Iraq as the center of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the President invaded it."

Political scientist James Reichley observes that prior to Thursday night, Senator Kerry had been mostly on the defensive, but the debate probably turned that around.

"I thought that Senator Kerry was on the offensive for most of the debate. And I think that that may have served his purpose well. He was sometimes prosecutorial in style, which may have turned some people off," said Mr. Reichley.

Throughout the debate, President Bush drove home one of the key messages of his campaign -- the assertion that Senator Kerry is not fit to lead because he does not take a stand and stay with it: "My concerns about the senator is that in the course of this campaign, he changes positions on the war in Iraq. He changes positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, your heart of hearts, is right in Iraq. You cannot lead if you send mixed messages."

Senator Kerry responded by rejecting out-of-hand the President's claim that he doesn't maintain his positions. His words were blunt and direct: "I have no intention of wilting. I have never wilted in my life. And I've never wavered in my life. I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq, and my position has been consistent."

Senator Kerry also moved to defuse another Bush charge that he would not strike first in order to protect the country: "No president through all of American history has ever ceded -- and nor would I -- the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America."

But for political scientist James Reichley, the two candidates differed relatively little on solutions to the Iraq situation and the war on terror: "The two policy approaches seem pretty much the same. I thought that President Bush might have borne in more on that fact that Senator Kerry was not really proposing much different (measures) than what the President is doing."

While the match-up between the two candidates was called a "debate", the strict rules set forth by both sides prevented Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry from directly questioning each other. And some observers viewed the debate as a series of prepared short statements rather than a discussion of the issues.

But the question the country is asking now is: Who won the debate?

John Pitney a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College says each candidate had his own strengths: "Senator Kerry was very knowledgeable. He's an attorney and his presentation bore the marks of a courtroom presentation in the good sense of that term. He was extremely well prepared and aware in a wide range of issues. President Bush focused on a narrower set of points and repeated them forcefully. And he demonstrated the sincerity and the depth of his convictions. And the outcome is that Senator Kerry's supporters are going to score him as the winner and President Bush's supporters are going to score him as the winner."

Over the course of the next few days, pollsters will scour the countryside to gauge which candidate might have emerged the victor of the debate. But for now, most analysts agree that it's too early to call.