To appreciate how George W. Bush and John Kerry each look at the world, it helps to start with Sept. 11, 2001. Minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon that morning, President Bush, who had been reading to schoolchildren in Sarasota, Fla., phoned Vice President Dick Cheney from his cabin in Air Force One. "We're at war," he said. As the President's plane was taking off over Florida, Kerry strode down the steps of the Capitol in Washington, having received orders to evacuate. In an interview with the New York Times, Kerry recalled scanning the skies for incoming aircraft as he left the building. He turned to someone near him. "This is war," Kerry remembers saying. "This is an act of war."
It says something about the similarities between Bush and Kerry that both seemed to recognize--far sooner than most--that the 9/11 attacks had thrust the U.S. into a struggle of historic magnitude. But as this presidential campaign careers toward a photo finish, the result has come to hinge on the ways the two men have diverged since that fateful day. For Bush, the attacks were the catalyst for war not just against Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network but also against any state that harbored, sponsored or supported terrorists. Even more ambitiously, as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told TIME, Bush soon concluded that a "permanent peace is only going to come when you've dealt with the conditions that produced terrorists, and that means a different kind of Middle East." That, in part, led to the most fateful presidential decision in a generation: the invasion of Iraq. Kerry has since galvanized his candidacy by condemning the war as a mistake and blasting Bush for "taking his eye off the terrorists."
When voters choose their President on Nov. 2, they will be the first in 30 years to do so under the shadow of war. So it's unsurprising that the clash between Bush and Kerry over Iraq, terrorism and national security has become a defining fault line. On the hustings last week, each candidate issued extraordinary indictments of his opponent's fitness to be Commander in Chief. "The President says he's a leader," Kerry told an audience in Waterloo, Iowa. "Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there." Less than 100 miles away, Bush questioned Kerry's steadfastness against the threat of terrorism: "You can't win a war when you don't believe you're fighting one." The sniping was more than rhetorical. In exchanges like those and during their three head-to-head debates, the candidates have revealed sharp differences in how they view the world. Bush sees Iraq as central to the campaign against al-Qaeda; Kerry calls Iraq a diversion from it. Kerry stresses the need to work within alliances; Bush has shown a propensity to act alone. The President speaks openly of using force to promote democracy in the Muslim world; Kerry's belief in power is tempered by a recognition of its limits. Kerry is cautious; Bush courts risk. "The only thing in common between these guys is Skull and Bones," says Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke, referring to the secret society that Bush and Kerry belonged to at Yale.