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Kerry, Bush Take Aim at Separate Audiences

Times Staff Writer

It was a tale of two debates as President Bush and John F. Kerry met in their second high-stakes encounter Friday night.

For the evening’s first half, a combination of tough questions from the St. Louis audience and a fluent, detailed critique from Kerry kept Bush on the defensive. Early on, the president at times seemed to be straining to keep his emotions in check as Kerry denounced his record on issues from jobs, healthcare and education to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

But Bush regained his footing as the questions shifted from foreign to domestic policy -- the arena that most experts expected to favor Kerry. Bush forcefully defended his approach to problems like healthcare and sent clear messages to his base, particularly by emphasizing conservative views on social issues such as abortion and judicial appointments.

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By contrast, Kerry repeatedly sought to portray himself as an almost non-ideological centrist, scorning “labels” and citing Republicans to support his points on such issues as Iraq and stem cell research.

That sharp stylistic contrast was a window into a key difference in the strategy of the two campaigns: While Kerry believes the race will be decided mostly by swing voters, Bush aides are betting on an increased turnout among core Republicans, especially social conservatives.

Bush was much more animated than in last week’s first debate in Coral Gables, Fla., and he grew stronger as the evening progressed. But Kerry was at least as determined as in Florida to press his case, broadening his attack from the president’s foreign policy record to a broad array of domestic issues.

The result was a debate that gave each side something to cheer, and seemed more likely to reinforce the convergence in the polls than to allow either man to break away from the other.

Democrats saw nothing in the evening that would slow the momentum Kerry gained after the first debate. Republicans were generally pleased that Bush delivered a steadier performance likely to remind his base why they support him.

“If people were tuning in to see Sen. Kerry deal Bush a knockout punch, or to see Bush knock out Kerry, it didn’t happen,” said Tony Fabrizio, pollster for Republican nominee Bob Dole in 1996. “Things have been sliding away from the president. Now they may have gone into an equilibrium between the two.”

Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who has long watched Bush, agreed that the evening would probably help Bush stabilize his position but was unlikely to dramatically shift the energy in the race back in his favor.

“I think he got back to a position where his own side wouldn’t say he blew it and people in the center wouldn’t be put off by what he said,” Buchanan said. “But I think he did no more than that.”

While surveys after the first debate showed voters gave Kerry a clear victory, the first soundings on this encounter showed a more divided result: An ABC News poll released moments after it ended concluded showed that 44% believed Kerry won, while 41% picked Bush.

In earlier presidential campaigns, town hall debates often were desultory affairs, with unfocused questions that allowed the candidates to recite their stump speeches. But from the outset, this event threw off sparks.

Fittingly on a night of dramatic events in the major league baseball playoffs, the debate began with the equivalent of high and tight fastballs from the audience. The first questioner asked Kerry what he would say to voters who find him “too wishy-washy.” The next questioner pointedly asked Bush whether it was “reasonable” to invade Iraq when it did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout the evening, Kerry seemed focused on two goals. One was to convince Americans that he had a firm agenda for dealing with problems both domestic and foreign. Over the 90 minutes, he said “I have a plan” so many times that viewers probably concluded that if nothing else, he had a plan to assure them he had a plan.

Kerry’s other big goal appeared to be to ground himself in the center by identifying with centrist causes -- and prominent Republicans. He pointed out that he agreed on issues with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has prominently endorsed Bush.

Kerry tried to buttress his assault on Bush’s record in Iraq by quoting Republican Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He cited Nancy Reagan to support his position on stem cell research. And he touted his support for welfare reform, President Clinton’s initiative to hire 100,000 new police officers and efforts to balance the federal budget dating back to the Ronald Reagan administration. Conspicuously, Kerry also reminded viewers that he is a Catholic.

Bush’s first goal seemed to be to mask his emotions better than at the first debate, when he appeared irritated by many of Kerry’s responses. For the most part, Bush succeeded: Like Kerry, he was firm and aggressive Friday. But with a few exceptions, he did not appear angry or irritated.

Bush also seemed determined to make a stronger case for continuity than at the first debate. Rather than immediately trying to shift the focus toward Kerry’s record, as he often did last week, Bush moved more often to stand and fight.

After repeatedly describing the war in Iraq as “hard work” last week, he offered a much more upbeat portrayal Friday. “Our plan is working,” he insisted. Bush was similarly upbeat about the economy, despite a disappointing September jobs report Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Finally, Bush appeared determined to reestablish sharp ideological lines in the campaign. While Kerry appeared defensive on a question about abortion -- never explicitly enunciating his support for legal abortion -- and sought to project a non-ideological air in response to a question about judicial appointments, Bush delivered firm, unequivocal, socially conservative answers on both questions.

“I think it is a worthy goal in America to have every child protected by law and welcomed in life,” the president insisted.

Throughout, but especially in his closing remarks, Bush also reprised an effective theme for him in the 2000 campaign and sought to portray the election as a choice between expanding and limiting government.

But Kerry sought even more relentlessly than in the first debate to heighten doubts about Bush’s record. He criticized Bush’s performance on Iraq, North Korea, Iran, his relationship with allies, job creation, the availability and cost of heathcare, the price of prescription drugs, the federal deficit, environmental protection, the enforcement of the Patriot Act and the funding of the No Child Left Behind education reform law.

Oddly, though, he failed to emphasize either the CIA report this week stressing that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction or the jobs report Friday. And some of his answers on domestic issues wandered in a way they did not in the first faceoff.

Kerry had the evening’s most dramatic moment and the strangest. The most dramatic echoed the famous pledge that Bush’s father, former President George H. W. Bush, made during the 1988 campaign that he would not raise taxes. Asked by an audience member to look squarely in the camera and pledge not to raise taxes on families earning less than $200,000 a year, Kerry did just that.

“Absolutely,” Kerry declared. “Yes. Right into the camera.”

The strangest moment came when Kerry sought to rebut Bush’s charge that the Democrat’s plan would raise taxes on hundreds of thousands of small businesses. Kerry said the president reached that number only by including thousands of high-income professionals who receive some additional income through freelance work or partnerships; even the president, Kerry said, would be counted as a small business because he received "$84 from a timber company he owns.”

Bush looked at Kerry quizzically. “I own a timber company? That’s news to me,” he said. “Need some wood?”

Four minutes after the debate ended, the Kerry campaign distributed a statement quoting the nonpartisan website Factcheck.org that Vice President Dick Cheney had tried to cite to buttress one of his points in his debate with John Edwards earlier this week. That website said Bush did in fact receive income from a timber investment that would have qualified him as a small business under the Republican definition.

Many observers agreed that Bush was under the most pressure heading into the debate. “More eyes are on him because of his poor showing the first time,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High Risk TV.”

Almost all national polls have shown the race tightening since the first debate. Some post-debate national surveys -- including polls by Newsweek and AP-IPSOS Public Affairs -- have even shown Kerry leading for the first time since the Republican convention concluded in early September. Other surveys -- such as polls late this week by ABC/Washington Post and Marist College Institute for Public Opinion -- have shown Bush maintaining a slim lead.

A third group -- including polls from Time and independent pollster John Zogby released Friday -- have shown the two in a virtual dead heat.

For Bush, the troubling trend is that in virtually all of these surveys since the first debate, he is attracting less than 50% of the vote -- a danger sign for an incumbent. Amid continuing violence in Iraq, his approval rating in the Time poll dropped from 56% shortly after the GOP convention to 50% in the survey conducted Thursday and Friday. In that survey, only 45% of registered voters said Bush deserved to be reelected, down from 52% early last month.

With his strong expressions of conservative values Friday, Bush probably reinforced his ties to many of his core supporters -- and provided fuel for Republican efforts to expand turnout among his base. Yet the continued focus on his record represents a threat to the president at a time when those polls show the country divided almost exactly in half on his performance.

“Unless in the third debate Bush comes up with a home run,” said Buchanan, “I think what this debate did was set us on the course I expect us to stay on through the campaign, which is more about policy direction and less about Kerry’s personality or capability as a leader.”

Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.


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