With the first of three debates behind them, President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) hit the campaign trail hard again Friday, with each trying to persuade voters he’d won the first face-to-face battle the previous night.
Bush was in Pennsylvania — a state with 21 electoral votes at stake that he narrowly lost in 2000 — for the 38th time on Friday. He quickly sought to turn Kerry's words Thursday night against him.
"Last night, Kerry continued his pattern of confusing contradictions," Bush said at a rally in Allentown. "You can't have it both ways ... The president cannot keep changing his mind, the president must speak clearly and the president must mean what he says."
Kerry spoke to voters at his own rally in Florida, the state that ultimately decided the last presidential election but one where memories of recounts, contested results and ballots' "hanging chads" are still fresh. He also hammered the president on what he said during Thursday's debate.
"I laid out a policy (for Iraq) last night ... The president keeps trying to debate himself on this," Kerry told the crowd at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "He keeps saying we don't want somebody who wants to leave. We don't want to wilt or waver ... Nobody's talking about leaving. Nobody's talking about wilting or wavering. We're talking about winning. We're talking about getting the job done right."
Both candidates' camps declared victory in Thursday night's debate, the first of a trio over the next two weeks between the rivals.
The vice presidential candidates meet Tuesday night for their only debate.
But post-debate "flash" polls — which are said not to be terribly reliable — showed that the Democratic challenger won by a substantial margin in most cases.
"I think it was a very strong performance on the part of John Kerry," his senior adviser, Joe Lockhart, told FOX News on Friday. "He answered the question most Americans had: Could he be president, could he be commander in chief? The answer was a resounding yes."
Republican Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby (search) didn't quite agree.
"I don't think it was a resounding yes," Shelby told FOX on Friday. "Both men did well in different ways last night. President Bush talked with substance. ... Bush was on the mark. Kerry was good — he's a good debater — but it was more style than substance."
A host of political analysts also favored Kerry's performance over Bush's in the first of three debates between the two candidates.
"I don't think President Bush showed his best side last night and I think John Kerry probably did," Richard Wolff, Washington, D.C., correspondent for Newsweek magazine, told FOX News on Friday.
A few pundits, including FOX News analyst and former President Clinton adviser Dick Morris, agreed with Shelby, saying Kerry won on style — which wasn't expected — but Bush was better on substance.
"Bush was as unfocused, undisciplined, unenergetic ... as he was during the pre-primary debates in 2000," said Morris, a strong critic of Kerry's policy positions. The president was "superb" when he spoke about American casualties or the need to win the War on Terror, but "I got the feeling he was distracted, he didn't answer questions quickly, he stumbled all over himself."
Others didn't think either candidate laid out a specific plan for Iraq over the next four years, which was the focus of Thursday's debate.
However, Kerry did say he wanted to gather a larger alliance of countries to help in Iraq, double the number of Special Forces troops and increase security forces on the ground and step up efforts to train Iraqis in handling security. He also said he wants to better protect nuclear and chemical plants in this country.
And Bush said he wanted to continue to fight the insurgency in Iraq, calling it "hard work" to go from a tyranny to a democracy. He said many Al Qaeda leaders have been captured and caught, and expressed optimism that Iraqi elections would happen in January in spite of all the violence.
Predictably, the campaigns themselves claimed victory for their candidates.
"What the American people will say is they saw a president who is absolutely committed to keeping them safe," Karen Hughes, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign, said Thursday. "Sen. Kerry, on the other hand, had one critical test tonight and that was to try to establish some credibility on the central issue, the war on Iraq, and he failed."
The Kerry camp had a very different view.
"The story of the debate is the American people saw John Kerry as a man of resolve and consistency," Lockhart said. "This is a president who has almost shirked the responsibility for anything that's gone wrong and he's spent four years saying, 'it's not my fault.'"
Aides from both camps set up shop in Florida — in an operation known as "spin alley" — to retaliate against their opposing candidate's jabs, accusations and challenges, as well as to point out any gaffes or slip-ups their opponents made.
The stated focus of the 90-minute debate was national and homeland security. The military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader War on Terror were front and center. The underlying theme through it all was who would be the stronger commander in chief.
Bush Takes Swings at Kerry in Pennsylvania
At a Bush rally in Pennsylvania Friday, the president ridiculed Kerry's plan to gather a larger alliance of other countries to help win the war in Iraq.
"I've been to a lot of summits," Bush said. "I've never seen a meeting that would depose a tyrant or bring a terrorist to justice."
And Bush again bashed Kerry for wanting a decision for pre-emptive war to pass what Kerry called "a global test" during the debate.
"I will never submit America's national security to an international test," the president told supporters Friday. "The president's job is not to take a poll; the president's job is to defend America."
Kerry Fights Back in Florida
Kerry reiterated his point Friday in Tampa that the president had been wrong to lead the country into war in Iraq.
"The truth begins with this: This president made a mistake to rush America to war without a plan to win the peace," Kerry told supporters. "And now we’re carrying 90 percent of the cost, 90 percent of coalition casualties."
He slammed Bush for saying that he'd do everything the same in Iraq, even if he knew then what he knows now.
"The president has said … that even if he knew there was no imminent threat, even if he knew there was no Al Qaeda connection, even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, he would just go do the whole thing again," Kerry said.
Both CBS and ABC released quickie reaction polls. The CBS survey of 200 "fence-sitters" showed 44 percent said Kerry won, 26 percent said Bush won and 30 percent said it was a tie. The ABC numbers were similar in that 45 percent gave the edge to Kerry while 36 chose Bush and 17 percent said it was a tie.
Stephanie Cutter, the Kerry campaign communications director, told FOX News that their internal flash polling showed Kerry's favorability going from 43 to 68 percent. The Kerry campaign usually doesn't release internal polls.
FOX News' political contributors largely agreed that Kerry came out ahead.
"There was a chance that the president would knock Kerry out of the race tonight. ... I think Kerry survived and I think he did pretty well tonight. Kerry was forceful and articulate," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "He did a pretty good job of making the case that the invasion of Iraq was wrong."
Click here for FOXNews.com's daily campaign journal, "Trail Tails."
Click here to see the candidates' positions on all the major issues of the campaign.
Mort Kondracke, co-host of FOX News' "The Beltway Boys," said he thought Bush started off strong by reminding viewers about how the world changed following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. But Kondracke said Bush began to stumble as Kerry stopped being nervous and became more forceful.
"The president sighed a lot in this debate and he seemed tired," Kondracke said.
Rating the Debaters
But Arizona Sen. John McCain (search), a Republican who has been campaigning for Bush, said the president showed his true colors and left no questions where he stands on the issues.
"Both of them, I thought they did well," McCain told FOX News. "The reason this president is popular is not because he's a complex individual. He's popular because you see a man who is committed to leading this country in the War on Terror.
"This is what's making the American people — in a time of great insecurity that we're in — have great strength ... and this image, I think, was reaffirmed in the eyes of the American people tonight."
Bush repeatedly pointed out that Kerry — despite his criticisms of the president's handling of Iraq — saw the same intelligence the White House did, pointing to Saddam Hussein as a threat. That helped lead Kerry to vote to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq — a war he now says was misguided. That, in part, is what has led the Bush-Cheney camp to say Kerry is inconsistent on issues he must not waver on if he wants to be an effective leader.
"Here's what's consistent," countered Sen. Bob Graham (search), D-Fla. "Sen. Kerry voted to authorize the war. He did so, based on intelligence that he was given, I was given, which said there were weapons of mass destruction, ready for imminent use, in Afghanistan — in Iraq. That was the threat that justified the war."
Graham said that contrary to what Bush said during the debate, the intelligence Congress has is not as complete as that the president is privy to — and the intelligence Kerry had access to was later deemed to be flawed.
"Of course we've turned out there were no such weapons of mass destruction. Second, he did it with the understanding that George W. Bush was going to act like his father. When his father went to war against Iraq, in 1991, we had alliances, we had allies."
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Carl Cameron and J. Jennings Moss contributed to this report.