"The only thing consistent about my opponent's position is that he's been inconsistent," Bush said of Kerry's stance on Iraq. "He changes positions. And you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win. And I expect to win. It's necessary we win."
Kerry, standing across from the president on a theater stage at the University of Miami, said his position on the war had been unwavering: He viewed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a threat and favored disarming his regime, but not the way Bush approached the task. He also accused the president of making "a colossal error of judgment" by focusing on Iraq at the expense of fighting Al Qaeda terrorists.
"Saddam Hussein didn't attack us," Kerry said in reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. "Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us."
Later in the debate, Bush responded somewhat testily, "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that."
Kerry dismissed Bush's assertion that Iraq was at the center of the worldwide fight against terrorism. "Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it," Kerry said.
He vowed to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and speed its reconstruction by drawing the nation's estranged allies together at an international summit he would convene as president. "We can do better," Kerry promised over and over throughout the 90-minute session.
Bush accused Kerry of disparaging the contributions of allies such as Great Britain and Poland, and said that minimizing their to role in the war effort was not the way to rally further international support.
Citing Kerry's recent depiction of the invasion of Iraq as "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," Bush said such comments not only demoralized U.S. troops but gave other countries reason to question Kerry's conviction. "You can't expect to build an alliance when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side-by-side with American troops in Iraq," Bush said.
To drive home his point, he used the words "mixed message" or "mixed signals" half a dozen times to characterize Kerry's position on Iraq.
Seeking to counter that assertion, Kerry said, "I have no intention of wilting. I've never wilted in my life, and I've never wavered in my life."
Times staff writer Daryl Strickland contributed to this report.