George Bush and John Kerry locked horns on live television today in the first face-to-face debate of the presidential election campaign.
The President and his Democratic challenger set out their different strategies on how to prevail in Iraq and win the war on terrorism.
But neither managed to deliver a knock-out punch during the 90-minute war of words at Miami University in Florida.
Senator Kerry accused his rival of a "colossal error in judgement" by invading Iraq, and offered a "fresh start" for America.
But Mr Bush hit back, saying he had proved himself as a leader and that the world was safer with Saddam Hussein removed from power.
During the debate, which focused on foreign policy and homeland security, Mr Kerry accused Mr Bush of leading America into the wrong war in the wrong time at the wrong place.
"Iraq was not even close to the war on terror until the president invaded it," the Massachusetts Senator said.
"He rushed to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace," he said, adding: "We did not go as a last resort. That's not a judgement the President of the United States ought to take."
Watched by an estimated 50 million viewers, Mr Kerry said American forces should instead have focused on capturing Osama bin Laden after the September 11 terror attacks.
He said: "We need to be smarter about how we wage the war on terror." Mr Kerry said Mr Bush was not accepting the reality of a deteriorating situation in Iraq hours after dozens of children were killed in Iraq in the latest insurgent attack.
"This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there," Mr Kerry said.
But Mr Bush, who has a small lead in the polls ahead of the November 2 election, repeatedly insisted that his opponent was sending "mixed messages" on the issue of Iraq.
"What message does that send our troops? What message does that send our allies? What message does that send Iraqis?" he asked.
He said: "The world is safer without Saddam Hussein.
"A free Iraq is going to make this world a more peaceful place." Mr Bush also accused Mr Kerry of "denigrating" allies, including Britain, by insisting that the US was practically alone in Iraq.
"That is not how you bring people together," Mr Bush said.
He added: "I have nothing but respect for the British, Tony Blair, and what they're willing to do." He insisted that sending troops to die was the hardest decision any president had to make.
He sighed and bowed his head as he recalled how he "prayed and teared up" with the wife of a fallen soldier.
Mr Bush said he hoped he never had to send troops into another war. He said he "never dreamt" when he was elected that he would have to commit troops to battle, "but the enemy attacked us".
Mr Kerry pointed out that Iraq was not behind the September 11 attacks.
While Mr Bush said he did not want to send more troops to war he went on: "The best way to protect our homeland is to stay on the offensive".
He added: "We will continue to spread freedom ... We have climbed the mighty mountain and I see the valley below, and it is a valley of peace." Mr Bush again suggested that Mr Kerry was inconsistent in his policies, adding that a president faced tough decisions and "cannot wilt under that pressure".
Mr Kerry shot back: "I have never wilted in my life."
He reinforced a central theme of his campaign, vowing to win back America's allies. "We need a fresh start, a new credibility and a president who can bring new allies to our side."
The alternative was another four years of Mr Bush and "more of the same".
But Mr Bush argued that world politics was not a popularity contest.
"Trying to be popular in the global sense, if it's not in our interests, makes no sense," he said. That is why he refused to sign America up the International Criminal Court where "unaccountable judges" could "pull our troops, our diplomats up for trial".
Mr Kerry charged that North Korea and Iran both had advanced their nuclear weapons programs during the Bush Administration, and that both countries are more dangerous now.
"As president I'll never take my eye off that ball," the senator said.
Mr Bush said he believed that a diplomatic initiative at present under way could solve the crisis with North Korea.
"On Iran, I hope we can do the same," he said.
Both men agreed that the biggest threat facing the US was nuclear proliferation.
Before making their closing statements, the Democrat and the Republican praised one another and lavished compliments on their families.
Both men have daughters who have been highly visible in the campaign. Mr Bush joked it was hard "trying to put a leash on them".
Political pundits immediately began analysing the debate as it drew to a close.
Early comments were that Mr Bush remained firmly on message, as expected, repeatedly saying his opponent changed his mind and his policies too frequently.
Mr Kerry was less wooden than Democrats feared and was able to deliver punchy responses without getting bogged down in detail, as he is known to sometimes do.
Mr Bush appeared perturbed when Kerry levelled some of his charges, scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others. Mr Kerry often took notes or stood with an impassive stare when the president spoke.
All neutral observers agreed that neither man managed to land a knock-out punch.
Mr Bush and Mr Kerry will go head-to-head again early on October 9 in St Louis, Missouri, and on October 14 in Tempe, Arizona.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, hold their only face-to-face debate of the campaign early on Wednesday in Cleveland.
* Three post-debate polls suggested that voters' first impressions were good for Kerry, with most of those surveyed saying he did better than Bush. In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of 615 debate watchers, 53 percent said Kerry did the best job in the debate, and 37 percent said Bush.
Such instant polls reflect the views of debate watchers and not the public at large. Initial reactions to a debate can change after a few days pass.Reuse content