It was the first debate. With less than two months left until Election Day, voters were given the first chance to see President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., square off face to face during a televised debate at the University of Miami.
President Bush and Sen. Kerry debated for 90 minutes on Sept. 30 about the Iraq war, terrorism and homeland security. The debate had many households, bars, groups and organizations in the United States glued to their television sets. They both argued their case to voters that they were better suited to lead the country.
Woody Turbinton, a patron at Houston’s restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, watched the beginning of the debate while sitting with his arms folded. He carried an unconvinced expression on his face at the bar. He and other patrons fixed their eyes on the big screen television in the corner of the bar. When Kerry attacked Bush about the cost of the Iraq war and argued he could do better, Turbinton suddenly became more interested, leaning forward and looking deeply at the screen.
"He seemed more stronger, and I liked what he said about how much this war is costing us," said Turbinton, a 25-year-old business owner who is very confident that he will vote Nov. 2. "I don’t know how he’s going to accomplish his objectives, but it’s clear that he’s serious about doing something right."
A New Orleans native, Turbinton said he feels that the president "tried to do the right thing to defend this country. But I’m not hearing anything regarding him finalizing the war."
At the end of the bar sat Louis Joseph, 28, and his 25-year-old girlfriend, Elizabeth Barley.
"Before this debate, I thought I knew why we went to war," Barley said. "Now I’m not so sure. I hear them both talking to each other, and now that Bush is being questioned about why he forgot Osama bin Laden and went for Saddam Hussein, I’m confused about why we went to war in the first place."
Kerry stayed on the attack, labeling Bush a careless leader who allowed bin Laden to escape in Afghanistan and who led the country suddenly into war in Iraq without proper planning. Kerry said Bush also continues to ignore important security needs at home, such as securing ports, according to CNN reports of the debate.
But there was not any confusion for Craig Campbell, a Republican who has been employed at the restaurant for seven years.
"Kerry is a joke. Now that he’s running for president, he’s against the war. How can that be? He voted for it," Campbell said. "I don’t like wars. I have relatives who are in the war. But sometimes they’re necessary. Bush is trying to say he went into this war to protect, not to defeat."
According to reports on the debate, Bush accused Kerry of withholding support for American troops and offering to turn over decisions about the nation’s security to other countries. "The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto from countries like France," Bush said in the debate.
Kerry continued his challenge of the president even after the debates, informing his supporters that Bush’s statement regarding Kerry’s statements on Iraq were incorrect.
"He keeps trying to say, ‘Well, we don’t want somebody who wants to leave.’ He says, ‘We don’t want to wilt or waver,’" said Kerry, in a low mocking tone of voice, according to CNN reports.
"Well, Mr. President, nobody’s talking about leaving, nobody’s talking about wilting and wavering. We’re talking about winning and getting the job done right."
Republican Sidney O’Connor fought with the television as he viewed the debate – especially when Kerry was speaking.
Watching from his living room, 64-year-old O’Connor sighed as Kerry blamed the president for not having fully cooperated with the United Nations in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.
"The United Nations will never act," O’Connor said.
He listened carefully as Bush read the prayer and words of thanks he shared with "Missy," a widow who lost her husband in Iraq.
"This is the Bush I like. This is the one that I think is the right leader for this country," O’Connor said proudly. "He’s really speaking from the heart."
Bush made a note that Kerry had said he would bring allies together to find a solution for Iraq. Bush said he had already tried summits unsuccessfully. "I’ve never seen a meeting that would depose a tyrant or bring a terrorist to justice," he said in the debate. "I will never submit America’s security to an international test."
In the debate, Kerry said he supported the right of a president to order a preemptive strike to protect the country, but said it must pass "the global test where your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."
In keeping with the theatrics of the presidential debates, Kerry evened Bush’s charges, much to an irritated Bush who frowned at times and, at other moments, glanced away in obvious disgust. Kerry also took notes while the president spoke. The television networks offered a split screen to viewers so they could see both men at the same time and watch their reactions.
Attempting to convince voters that he is tough enough to be president, Kerry said, "I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are." He said that Bush, in invading Iraq, lost sight of the goal of capturing terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Bush insisted, "The world is safer without Saddam Hussein." He called Iraq "a central part in the war on terror" and said 75 percent of bin Laden’s leadership had been brought to justice.