Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush Thursday night of committing a "colossal error in judgment" by invading Iraq. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein," the president shot back in campaign debate, adding his rival once said so himself.
"I agree with him," the president said in a jab designed to underscore his contention that Kerry is prone to flip-flops.
Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, said he could do a better job than Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept. 11-style attack, and pledged to be strong and resolute in fighting terrorism.
"But we also have to be smart and smart means not diverting our attention from the war on terror and taking it off to Iraq," the Democrat said.
"This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there," Kerry said of Bush, the two men standing behind lecterns 10 feet apart on a University of Miami debate stage.
Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Kerry as a man who changes his mind too often to be president.
"He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time. I don't think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops?" said the Republican incumbent.
More than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, many of them by insurgents battling American forces.
Not long before Bush and Kerry strode on stage, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against the insurgents in Samarra. The U.S. command said government and police buildings had been secured in the city.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, hold their only face-to-face debate of the campaign Tuesday in Cleveland.
The polls gave Bush a slight advantage, with several key battleground states exceedingly close.
Given the stakes, it was not surprising that the two campaigns negotiated what amounted to a 32-page contract that covered debate details. They ranged from the choice of moderator to the distance between the candidate lecterns (10 feet).
Even so, a last-minute controversy flared, as Kerry's aides objected to the placement of timing lights on the lecterns.
Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one point when he said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after they had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway, without an exit strategy, and under conditions that mean the United States has incurred 90 percent of the casualties and paid 90 percent of the cost.
In response, Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigrated U.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aid Afghanistan and Iraq and sent mixed signals.
"What's his message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion?" Bush said to Kerry's contention that he could summon broader international support for the war. "They're not going to follow someone whose core convictions keep changing because of politics."
In response to one question, Kerry said Bush had misled the country on the war by pledging to plan carefully, give diplomacy every chance to prevail and more. He said Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had used the invasion as a recruiting tool for terrorists.
Bush said that was an "amazing claim," and said the United States, not bin Laden, should decide America's strategy in the war on terror.
Again, he said Kerry had changed his mind on the war, but this time, Kerry said he had held one consistent position.
"The only thing consistent about my opponent's position is he's been inconsistent," said Bush, eager for the last word.
Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their face-to-face encounter, but this was the first time each man had to listen to the criticism at close quarters.
The 90-minute debate unfolded scarcely a month before the election, the first in a series of high-stakes encounters between the president and his Democratic challenger. The two men meet Oct. 8 in St. Louis and again on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Arizona.