WASHINGTON – These guys don’t like each other – that is clear.

It was one of the most bitter presidential debates in modern history. The president was accused of incompetence in conducting the war in Iraq. His challenger was accused of demoralizing the troops on the battlefields.

Bush said he agreed with what Sen. John Kerry said in his primary fight against Howard Dean – that anyone who believes that the world is not safer with Saddam Hussein gone “doesn’t have the judgment to be president.”

“You better have a president who chases these terrorists down before they hurt us again,” said Bush.

Kerry hammered Bush on the war, saying the president has made, “I regret to say, a colossal error in judgment, and judgment is what we look for in a president of the United States of America.”

Bush said, “Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell. America and the world are safer for it.” Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, he said his administration “has been on a multi-pronged strategy to make our nation safer.”

“People out there know where I stand,” Bush said. When asked if a Kerry presidency would make the nation more vulnerable to terror attacks, responded, “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

The 90-minute debate was seen by analysts as particularly crucial for Kerry, whose slight lead in the polls evaporated under tough criticism by hundreds of his former Vietnam comrades – known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth – who attacked Kerry for self-aggrandizement of his four-month tour of duty as well as his war-crimes accusations against U.S. troops still fighting after Kerry came home. The Democratic senator from Massachusetts now trails slightly in the polls.

The real effect of this debate may not be felt for days as pundits and “spinners” from both sides tell the American people who they think won the debate.

Kerry, who made his Vietnam War experience the cornerstone of his campaign in his Democratic Party acceptance speech in Boston took eight minutes tonight before mentioning he had served in combat.

Bush took relish in citing Kerry’s own words from the past about Iraq.

“You cannot change positions if you expect to win,” said Bush.

Kerry pulled no punches: “This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president,” said Kerry, who accused Bush of diverting resources from the hunt for Osama bin Laden to the war in Iraq.

“We have capability of doing both,” countered Bush, defending his decision to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. “To say that there’s only one focus in the war on terror doesn’t really understand the nature war on terror.”

After months of accusing Kerry of emboldening terrorists, Bush turned aside a question about whether the United States faced a higher risk of terrorist attack if his rival were elected.

“I don’t believe that’s going to happen,” he said. “I believe I’m going to win because the American people know I know how to lead. What my opponent wants you to forget is he voted for the use of force and now says it’s the wrong war in the wrong time at the wrong place.”

“I can make America safer than President Bush,” said Kerry, who criticized his presidential opponent for alienating key allies and shouldering most of the burden of the conflict.

Kerry said, “Iraq wasn’t even close to the war on terror before the president invaded. And he rushed to the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace.”

Bush responded that Iraq is a central war on terror and losing there would be a big “disaster.”

“This is a vital mission. A free Iraq will be a vital ally,” said Bush. “A free Iraq is essential to the security of this country.”

Bush emphasized consistency as the key to victory: “I’ve made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. And that’s how best to keep the peace. My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.”

When challenged on his comment that he voted for the war before voting against it, Kerry responded: “I made a mistake in the way I talked about the war. The president was wrong in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

Before the debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, just 5 to 7 percent of voters were considered undecided. The next two presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 8 and Oct. 13.

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