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Inside Politics

Bush, Kerry: Nukes most serious threat

First debate covers Iraq, homeland security

Kerry and Bush faced off Thursday in the first of three presidential debates.
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CORAL GABLES, Florida (CNN) -- In the first presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed Thursday that nuclear proliferation is the single most serious threat facing the United States.

But they disagreed on how the United States should negotiate with North Korea, which is believed to possess several nuclear weapons.

Bush supporter and 2000 GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain said he thought it was a good debate.

"I thought that John Kerry did a good job style-wise. I think that the president was very convincing in his conviction that what he has done is right, what he will do is correct," McCain said on "Larry King Live."

Former Democratic Texas Gov. Ann Richards said Kerry appeared to be someone ready to assume the mantle of commander in chief.

"I was really pleased ... we were all really nervous going into this debate and I thought that John Kerry knocked it out of the ballpark," Richards said.

Kerry said the U.S. should open bilateral talks with North Korea in addition to talks with the current coalition of nations -- the U.S. and five of North Korea's neighbors.

Bush thinks that's a bad idea.

"It's not going to work if we open up a dialogue with Kim Jong Il," Bush said. "He wants to unravel the six- party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message."

A presidential hopeful in 2000, McCain said he thought that no U.S. president has ever proposed bilateral talks with North Korea on nuclear weapons.

North Korea has refused international demands that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program after agreeing during the Clinton administration to do so.

Kerry used the issue to question Bush's trustworthiness.

"Just because the president says it can't be done, that you'd lose China, doesn't mean it can't be done," Kerry said. "I mean, this is the president who said 'There were weapons of mass destruction,' said 'Mission accomplished,' said we could fight the war on the cheap -- none of which were true."

Bush also broached Iran, which is suspected of nuclear weapons aspiration. "On Iran, I hope we can do the same thing, continue to work with the world to convince the Iranian mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions," Bush said.

'Zingers and gotchas'

Both candidates took the stage smiling and shook hands -- the only opportunity they are allowed to approach each other, according to the rules of the debate.

"I thought there was a lack of zingers or gotchas that sometimes characterize these debates," McCain said on "Larry King Live."

Indeed, the night took on a serious tone with the first question from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS's "NewsHour."

Lehrer asked Kerry why he would do a better job of preventing a 9/11 type of attack.

"I believe I can make America safer than President Bush has made us," Kerry answered. "I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world and when we are leading strong alliances."

Bush said that since 9/11 "our nation has been on a multi-pronged strategy to keep our country safer."

Bush said he meets often with world leaders. "They're not going to follow somebody who says 'this is the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.' "

Iraq took much of the allotted 90 minutes of the debate, with Bush defending his decision to order U.S. troops into Iraq, and Kerry accusing Bush of acting rashly without doing enough to gain support from the international community.

"This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment," Kerry said.

Citing the fugitive terrorist leader behind the September 11 attacks, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Kerry said, "Unfortunately he escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded. But we didn't use American forces -- the best trained in the world -- to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords -- and he out-sourced that job too. That's wrong."

Bush countered, "We pursue al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda tries to hide. Seventy-five percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice. The rest of them know we're after them."

The questioning turned to homeland security. Bush said his administration has overseen significant changes within the FBI.

"We've ... changed the culture of the FBI to have counterterrorism as its number one priority," Bush said. "We're communicating better. We're going to reform our intelligence services to make sure that we get the best intelligence possible."

Kerry seized on recent news to answer that claim. "We just read on the front pages of America's papers that there are over 100,000 hours of tapes, unlistened to. On one of those tapes may be [the terrorists]."

Many American voters told pollsters before the debates that the events will influence their presidential choice. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, 18 percent of registered voters said the debates would make a difference. (How to read poll results)

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 615 registered voters who watched the first debate, most said Kerry did the better job and nearly half said the debate made them think more favorably toward Kerry.

By narrow margins Bush came out better on believability, likeability and toughness. But there was virtually no change among those polled on which candidate would handle Iraq better or make a better commander in chief.

Because the poll only questioned people who watched the debate, its results do not statistically represent the views of all Americans. (Full story)

A second debate is set for October 8 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in front of a group of undecided voters. A third debate is scheduled for October 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, is expected to focus on economic and domestic policy.

A vice-presidential debate is set for October 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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