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Debate's foreign policy focus guarantees a spotlight on Iraq

After months of attacks, slurs and countercharges over the war in Iraq, George Bush and John Kerry meet tonight in Miami for a nationally televised debate on what has become the central issue in the presidential race.

The forum is meant to explore foreign policy in general, and will likely touch on subjects ranging from genocide in Sudan and the erosion of Russian democracy to the increasingly threatening nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.

At base, though, the election has shaped up to be very much a referendum on Bush's handling of Iraq, a debate that has highlighted stark differences in the candidates and the way they view the United States and its place in the world.

"Iraq is a window for the public to view the candidates' character, their leadership style, how they might perform in the future," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington think tank. "That becomes immensely important in a time of war."

The Iraq debate has combined with the antiterrorism war to vault national security, and its broad international affairs component, to the fore of the presidential contest.

"For the first time since 1968, this is an election in which foreign policy issues are right at the top of the agenda," said Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Longtime PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, making his 10th appearance as a presidential debate moderator, likely will toe the line he has drawn for himself before: Asking measured questions and avoiding provocative gotchas.

"For me to be aggressive and beat up on these guys, I'm not going to do that. That's not what I signed on to do and I don't think any moderator should," Lehrer told CNN's Larry King Live in 2000 after Bush and Al Gore faced off.

He would rather be criticized for overly bland questions than for showing "how tough I was," he told King.

Lehrer, who PBS said was declining all predebate interviews this week, has drawn both praise and criticism for his style.

Former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw said Lehrer's track record makes him "the dean of moderators."

"I think Jim Lehrer is always a good choice," said Shaw. "He's basic journalism. He's fair. He's balanced. He's accurate."

Said Judy Woodruff, the CNN anchor and former Lehrer colleague at PBS: "Jim Lehrer proves time and again he puts himself in the shoes of the voter . . . and asks questions that are going to draw out these candidates, rather than trip them up."

But Lehrer has drawn heat for what some contend is a gloves-on style that fails to sufficiently challenge candidates on their positions.

The campaign so far has seen less of a lofty diplomatic dialogue than a bare knuckles brawl, with Bush warning voters that Kerry is a windsurfing flip-flopper who will "wilt when times are tough," and Kerry blaming Bush for throwing Iraq into a "crisis" where "troops are dying" and "people are being beheaded."

Not having found the weapons upon which he built his case for war, Bush has recast Iraq as the central front in the global antiterrorism effort, a place where bloodshed continues to threaten national elections in January.

Kerry has assailed the war as a misguided and costly distraction from the antiterrorism fight, charging that it has shattered U.S. relations with partners abroad and engendered global animosity toward Americans and distrust of U.S. aims.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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