Differences Sharpened in Debate

Times Staff Writers

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry sparred Friday night over Iraq, taxes, abortion and stem cell research, in a wide-ranging and heated debate that painted two vastly different portraits of America and its place in the world.

Kerry defended himself against charges he was wishy-washy, saying Bush had turned his reelection campaign into “a weapon of mass deception” that had grossly distorted the senator’s record.

Bush said his decision to invade Iraq was the right one, even in the face of new findings contradicting his main justification for going to war. “Saddam Hussein was a unique threat,” Bush said, stabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “And the world is better off without him in power.”


The 90-minute debate, featuring questions from a town hall audience of voters who were either undecided or not completely committed to either candidate, produced a lively and free-wheeling forum. At times, Bush strained in his chair and Kerry tapped his foot impatiently, each seemingly eager to respond to what the other was saying.

The president refrained from the sort of peevish expressions that marked his performance in their first debate last week in Miami and were widely regarded to have hurt him politically.

One of the most forceful exchanges came over taxes.

Kerry was asked by an audience member whether he would look directly into the camera and promise not to raise taxes on families earning less than $200,000 annually. “Absolutely. Yes, right into the camera,” Kerry said, moving forward on stage as he stared into the lens. “I am not going to raise taxes.”

Bush was scornful, saying Kerry’s pledge was “not credible.”

“Of course he’s going to raise your taxes” to pay for various programs he has proposed, the president said. Asserting Kerry has repeatedly voted for higher taxes during his Senate career, he added: “He’s got a record. He’s been there 20 years. You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Close to half of the debate was devoted to the war in Iraq, the topic that has dominated the 2004 campaign.

To bolster their arguments, each candidate highlighted portions of the report released Wednesday by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the CIA’s weapons inspection team.


The report refuted Bush’s chief arguments for invading Iraq and toppling leader Saddam Hussein, saying there was no evidence that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991, and stating that its capacity for doing so was diminishing, not growing.

Kerry said the report showed Bush had “rushed the nation to war,” and he argued that the world was now a more dangerous place and the U.S. was less respected abroad because of the president’s miscalculation. Bush “took his eye off the ball -- off of Osama bin Laden,” Kerry said in reference to Al Qaeda’s leader.

The 918-page CIA report also said Hussein was determined to obtain weapons of mass destruction and that he hoped to revive his weapons program if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Bush cited that finding in maintaining that the war was justified.

“Saddam Hussein was a threat because he could have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist enemies,” Bush said. “Sanctions were not working. The United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein.”

In response to a question about why American tourists have been met with hostility abroad, the president said that foreigners “love America” even if they are not happy with all of his decisions as president.

“Sometimes you make unpopular decisions because you think they’re right,” he said. “I don’t think you want a president who tries to become popular and does the wrong thing.”


Kerry accused Bush of alienating the country’s allies and diminishing its standing in the world by failing to live up to the test he had set for himself in a similar town hall debate in the 2000 race.

“The president stood right here in this hall four years ago and he was asked a question ... ‘Under what circumstances would you send people to war?’ ” Kerry said. “And his answer was, ‘With a viable exit strategy and only with enough forces to get the job done.’ He didn’t do that. He broke that promise.”

Before the debate, the Labor Department released its final jobs report before election day, showing that 96,000 jobs were created in September, fewer than most economic analysts had expected. The nation’s unemployment rate held steady at 5.4%.

Once more, the candidates seized on different findings to press their respective cases.

Bush pointed to the creation of nearly 1.9 million jobs over the last year, and said his tax cuts had resulted in one of the shortest and shallowest recessions the nation had experienced.

But Kerry said there would be an overall loss of jobs during Bush’s term, which would make him the first president to suffer a net job loss since Herbert Hoover presided over the start of the Great Depression.

Under the rules negotiated by the two campaigns, Bush and Kerry were allowed to roam the stage, but could not cross a line down the middle, or invade the other’s “predesignated” space. The audience was arrayed in a half-circle around the candidates, who were seated on tall chairs on a set constructed inside a gymnasium at Washington University.


Although Kerry mostly kept his composure, Bush seemed angry on occasion, especially when he accused the Massachusetts senator of disparaging the contribution allies had made to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

“You tell Tony Blair we’re going alone!” Bush said of the British prime minister. “It denigrates an alliance to say we’re going alone -- to discount their sacrifices.”

Kerry countered by noting that some nations had pulled out of the coalition. In a nod to the state hosting the debate, he also said, “Just given the number of people from Missouri who are in the military over there today ... it would be the third-largest country in the coalition, behind Great Britain and the United States.”

Aides to the president acknowledged that he needed to contain his emotions better than he had in the first debate, and throughout much of the evening, Bush seemed to be trying.

At one point, he joked about his performance last week. “That answer almost makes me want to scowl,” he said with a smile, after Kerry discussed the threats posed by North Korea and Iran.

Throughout the evening, Bush sought to affix the “liberal” label on his opponent, citing his votes on taxes and saying that his proposed healthcare plan would amount to a government takeover. “That’s what liberals do,” Bush said. “They create government-sponsored healthcare.”


Kerry disputed that claim. “It is not a government takeover,” he said. “You have a choice. Choose your doctor. Choose your plan. The government has nothing to do with it.”

Kerry has proposed extending coverage to almost three-fourths of uninsured Americans by allowing the working poor to obtain insurance through the existing state-federal partnership that covers children and their families.

Other ideological differences emerged clearly, especially over abortion and the Supreme Court.

Kerry was asked what he would say to a voter who did not want federal dollars spent on abortion. The senator, who has spoken little of his longtime support for abortion rights, emphasized that he was a Catholic and that he respected “the belief about life and when it begins.”

“But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever,” he said. “I believe that you can take that position and not be pro-abortion, but you have to afford people their constitutional rights.”

Bush termed Kerry’s answer confusing, saying, “Try to decipher that.” And the president reiterated his opposition to abortion and his support for measures like the ban on the procedure known by opponents as partial-birth abortion.


“These are reasonable ways to help promote a culture of life in America,” he said. “I think it is a worthy goal in America to have every child protected by law and welcomed in life.”

Similarly, Bush gave a nod to his conservative base when asked whom he would appoint to the Supreme Court. The president declined to give any names, but said he would pick judges who were “strict constructionists” of the Constitution.

Kerry said that he would appoint judges who would enforce civil rights, abortion rights and equal opportunity. “These are constitutional rights, and I want to make sure we have judges who interpret the Constitution of the United States according to the law,” he said.

In another moment that touched on personal faith, Kerry was asked about the morality of using human embryos for stem cell research.

Scientists say the research holds promise for curing a range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But the process has sparked opposition from abortion opponents and Catholic and other religious groups.

Kerry said the embryos used in the research were surplus and would otherwise be destroyed. “That’s the nature of the human spirit,” Kerry said of stem cell research. “I think it is respecting life to reach for that cure.”


Bush noted that he was the first president to authorize federal funding for stem cell research, but that he restricted funding to a limited number of existing stem cell colonies. “I think we’ve got to be careful to balance the ethics and the science,” he said.

The prospect of a renewed draft came up when a young man asked Bush whether he would reinstate conscription. Bush rejected that idea unequivocally.

“I hear there’s rumors on the Internets that we’re going to have a draft,” he said. “We’re not going to have a draft, period. The all-volunteer Army works.”

Kerry said he too was against bringing back the draft, but added that Bush’s policies had left the military “overextended.”

“You’ve got stop-loss policies so people can’t get out when they were supposed to,” he said. “You’ve got a backdoor draft right now.”

Afterward, there was no clear consensus among some of the 140 attendees about which man emerged from the debate the victor.


Bush’s flashes of temper struck Nichole James, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom from Affton, Mo., who came to the debate undecided, but left leaning toward Kerry.

“Kerry just presented himself in a way that I could really relate to,” James said afterward. “Bush didn’t seem to be in his comfort zone,” she said, describing him as “more harsh, more angry” than his rival.

Mark Jeffrey, a 45-year-old St. Louis businessman, said the president had impressed him.

“I think he did a good job of trying to address some of the issues. We’re really up against the wall with the war on terror,” said Jeffrey, who was leaning toward Bush before the debate.

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.