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First debate provides ‘more of same’

Campaigns still concerned over Colorado

By Leigh E. Rich

Acusations of flip-flopping and sending mixed messages, as well as slips of the tongue mistaking Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, dominated the first presidential debate last Thursday on foreign policy and homeland security.

The messages from both camps were clear and nothing the American people haven’t already heard during this presidential election season: John Kerry, the Republicans claimed, has been consistent in his inconsistency on the war in Iraq and George W. Bush, the Democrats said, has misled in linking the war with Sept. 11 and in his doggedness to stay the course.

During the debate, both Bush and Kerry accused the other of lacking the skills for the job of commander in chief.

“I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place,” Bush said, paraphrasing a statement made by Kerry in September explaining why he is now critical of the war despite having supported the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force. “What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?”

Kerry defended his statement, which Bush used seven times during the 90-minute debate, as well as the president’s reiteration of Kerry’s vote against “the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops.”

“I made a mistake in how I talk about the war,” Kerry admitted. “But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

The Massachusetts senator also invoked his common criticism of the president for going Iraq alone.

“Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. … But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was,” Kerry said. “Now, we can succeed. But I don’t believe this president can. I think we need a president who has the credibility to bring the allies back to the table and to do what’s necessary to make it so America isn’t doing this alone.”

The same arguments could be heard following the presidential head-to-head, as Vice President Dick Cheney and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, both watching from the Rocky Mountain state, addressed Colorado crowds.

The world, Biden told the Democratic throng at the Temple Events Center in Denver, “has lost faith in our judgment.” He also accused the president of squandering opportunities to set Iraq on a path to success.

“If the president of the United States would change course now and do what needs to be done, John would support him and I would support him,” Biden said, adding that both he and Kerry—“and, I suspect, many of you—are angry. … The American people were not leveled with.”

Not surprisingly, the opinion was quite different at the downtown Marriott, where the vice president spoke to Colorado Republicans before and after the debate.

This election is of utmost importance, Cheney said, in order to ensure an administration capable of winning the war on terror. The Bush administration, he said, has a “basic, fundamental security strategy” and is “willing to go forward in that strategy regardless.”

“Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that kind of commitment … in the president’s opponent,” Cheney maintained before accusing Kerry of vacillating, even in his Senate record. “He’s been so many places. … He’s consistently opposed strong national policies.”

The crowd then erupted in a round of “flip-flop” when Cheney, like Bush, raised the issue of the $87 billion appropriation for military operations and aid in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He’s “a senator who’s not quite certain what he believes,” Cheney said.

That was, ironically, Biden’s assessment of Bush’s performance during the debates.

“He appeared uncertain and somewhat nervous,” Biden said.

What was undeniable Thursday night was just how nervous both political parties are with regard to Colorado’s nine electoral votes.

When asked why the vice president decided to watch the first presidential debate in Denver, Nicol Andrews, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Bush-Cheney team, said in an interview that the campaign recognizes that it’s a tight race in the Centennial state and that it’s “not taking Colorado for granted.”

And, she added, “the president wants Colorado’s vote”—a telling statement since Colorado has voted for the Republican candidate in eight of the past nine presidential elections with the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992.

But even Andrews admitted that “it’s a tight race all over the country.”

Deeming Kerry “a strong finisher,” Biden told Colorado “do not give up on my guy. He’s going to win.”

And on Friday, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland claimed during a quick stump in Denver, “It was High Noon last night and John Kerry was the man who drew the gun on the president. And he won.”

Much of the after-debate analysis that continued well into Friday focused on the candidates’ presentations rather than the content.

“I’m not joking when I say this,” Biden told those remaining in the Temple Events audience after the debate was over. “You saw the John Kerry I’ve known … my whole life. … (Viewers) saw John Kerry’s character. They saw John Kerry’s resoluteness.”

Likewise, “President Bush spoke from the heart, and he spoke directly to the American people and to Colorado,” Andrews said. “He … has a very unique way of connecting with people and communicating the message that he is very serious about winning the war in Iraq.

“He is a very emotional man and a very sensitive man,” Andrews added, unknowingly agreeing with Biden’s appraisal that Bush “really does bleed with those kids (American troops) dying” in Iraq.

Not all of the analysis was delivered with kid gloves, however.

Cheney condemned the Kerry team for its last-minute issue over the lights used during the debate to signal the end of a candidate’s answer period. The regulations concerning the lights and a whole host of other debate items were set out in a 32-page memo signed by both campaigns.

First Kerry was “for the lights before he was against the lights,” Cheney told the Marriott crowd, adding another nail to the potential campaign coffin Kerry created earlier this year, when he rebutted Republican criticisms with “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

But Bush didn’t escape the evening unscathed, either. On Friday, Cleland praised Kerry’s performance and criticized Bush’s.

“Unlike George Bush, who was filled with the humma-hummas,” Cleland said, Kerry demonstrated “courage, commitment, strength, mastery of the facts … and the English language.”

Comparing the president to John Wayne, the Lone Ranger and “a character out of the movie Dumb and Dumber,” Cleland called Bush “the great pretender” and said “all (viewers) heard was a repetitive message. … All he knows is stay the course, stay the course, stay the course.”

It’s “time to change course,” Cleland maintained, and institute an exit strategy in Iraq and “focus on the real enemy that did attack us.”

“Now we’re left with the cold, hard facts. … (Bush) has no idea to get us out. … The war in Iraq has become a disaster.”

Colorado Treasurer Mike Coffman, who said in an interview that the debate “went well for Bush,” concurs with Cleland’s sentiment that Bush’s main message was “to stay the course.”

Bush showed the American people, Coffman believes, that “we’re making progress” and that he is “a firm and decisive commander in chief and that’s what’s needed to win the war on terror.”

Coffman doesn’t agree, however, that staying the course is necessarily the wrong choice.

“Kerry is in a difficult position,” Coffman said. “He can’t really argue the point about whether or not … the invasion of Iraq is justified when he’s saying at the same time that he won’t (extract) forces from there—that he’s going to stay the course.”

Coffman also took aim at Kerry’s “notion that’s he’s going to bring in more international support. … I just don’t think it flies with the American people.”

All of which was just a reiteration of the arrows Bush and Kerry pointed at each other Thursday night.

Claiming Bush diverted “attention from the real war on terror” by invading Iraq, Kerry accused Bush of making “a colossal error of judgment” in “saying to America that he was going to build a true alliance, that he would exhaust the remedies of the United Nations and go through the inspections. In fact, he first didn’t even want to do that.”

“My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat,” Bush retorted, adding that he did go “to the United Nations. I didn’t need anybody to tell me to go to the United Nations. I decided to go there myself. And I went there hoping that, once and for all, the free world would act in concert to get Saddam Hussein to listen to our demands.”

The candidates also clashed over whether invading Iraq was essential to fight the war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001.

When moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush whether the United States could simultaneously prioritize searching for bin Laden while engaging in a war with Hussein’s regime, the president responded, “Jim, we’ve got the capability of doing both. … (Someone who says) that there’s only one focus on the war on terror doesn’t really understand the nature of the war on terror.”

But Kerry took aim at Bush’s answer.

“The president just talked about Iraq as a center of the war on terror,” Kerry said. “Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it.”

And both accused the other of sending mixed messages to America’s troops overseas.

“My opponent says help is on the way,” Bush said, “but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm’s way, ‘wrong war, wrong place, wrong time’? Not a message a commander in chief gives, or this is a ‘great diversion.’”

For his part, Kerry rattled off a long list of examples of what he thinks are mixed messages issued by the Bush administration about homeland security—including prioritizing tax cuts while not investing in protective measures for America’s exposed transportation systems and chemical plants.

Additionally, Kerry said, “what kind of mixed message does it send when you have $500 million going over to Iraq to put police officers in the streets of Iraq and the president is cutting the COPS program in America? What kind of message does it send to be sending money to open firehouses in Iraq, but we’re shutting firehouses who are the first-responders here in America?”

What doesn’t seem to be mixed are the Republican and Democrat responses to the Bush and Kerry campaign messages on foreign policy. Cleland and Coffman, both of whom are veterans, say their respective candidates are the right commanders for America.

“Inconsistency demonstrates weakness, and weakness invites aggression by terrorists,” Coffman said, adding that “as a veteran, I have a very hard time seeing Kerry as a commander in chief. … Particularly in a combat role, you really look toward that type of solid leadership … that’s demonstrated by George Bush. … Kerry shifts with the political winds on defense policy and that does not inspire confidence among any veteran.”

According to Cleland, however, “John Kerry pricked George Bush’s bubble. … John Kerry didn’t just win the debate. He authenticated himself … as a real American hero.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, October 1). Campaigns still concerned over Colorado: First presidential debate provides ‘more of the same.’ The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 9.

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