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Kerry and Bush Wrap Up Debates With New Issues, Familiar Topics

Times Staff Writers

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry tangled Wednesday night in a final debate that highlighted their differences on a fresh range of issues, including Social Security, gay rights, immigration and the minimum wage.

Bush repeatedly assailed Kerry as a do-nothing legislator outside the political mainstream, saying he made fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- an iconic liberal -- seem moderate by comparison. “Only a liberal senator from Massachusetts would say a 49% increase in funding for education was not enough,” Bush said at one point, after Kerry accused him of scrimping on his administration’s school reform plan.

Kerry asserted that Bush had made the country less safe by pursuing a mistaken course in Iraq and had hurt working Americans by producing record deficits and the first net job loss of any president in 72 years. Saying that wages are declining while new jobs pay less than the ones that have vanished, Kerry added: “And the president just walks on by this problem.”

The debate ended a pivotal stage of the campaign, which saw Kerry come from behind in most national polls to pull even with Bush, setting up an intense 19-day sprint to election day.

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The last in a series of three matchups over less than two weeks, the debate was intended to focus on the economy and other domestic issues, and for the most part it did.

On Social Security, the two candidates clashed sharply over Bush’s plan to partially privatize the system, which he described as a priority of a second term.

Bush favors giving younger Americans the option of investing a portion of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts, a move that would entail greater risk but also potentially a greater payout once they retire.

While he skirted a question on how to pay any transition to a new system, Bush said “the cost of doing nothing ... far exceeds the cost of trying to save the system for our children.”

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Kerry disagreed, calling Bush’s proposal “an invitation to disaster.” He said Social Security could be shored up through a strengthened economy and said, if necessary, a panel of experts could be convened later to recommend steps to ensure the program’s longer-term solvency.

“I didn’t hear any plan to fix Social Security,” Bush shot back. “I heard more of the same.”

On gay rights, the two differed when asked whether they believed homosexuality was a choice.

“I don’t know,” Bush replied. “I just don’t know.”

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He continued, “I do know that we have a choice to make in America, and that is to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity. It’s important that we do that. I also know in a free society ... consenting adults can live the way they want to live, and that’s to be honored.”

Bush then restated his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying he was “deeply concerned” that judges were undermining “the sanctity of marriage.”

Kerry agreed marriage should be limited to a man and woman. But he disagreed about the need for a constitutional amendment and also about homosexuality being a choice.

“We’re all God’s children,” Kerry said, then he referred to Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary. “I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that

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Although Cheney has occasionally made public references to his daughters sexual orientation, in a post-debate interview in Des Moines he expressed umbrage that she had been mentioned by the Democratic candidate.

“Sen. Kerry was out of line to even bring my daughter into it,” Cheney said. “I thought it was totally inappropriate and, frankly, I was surprised he would do something like that.”

The format of the session, held at Arizona State University, was similar to that of the first meeting between the two men. Each stood behind lecterns, spaced 10 feet apart, and took questions from the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.

Immigration was among the issues Schieffer brought up that the candidates have largely ignored during the campaign.

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Asked about his approach, Bush reiterated his support for a guest-worker program granting temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom come from Mexico. But he expressed strong opposition to any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Kerry called for a crackdown on employers who hired illegal immigrants and briefly mentioned a proposal to expedite citizenship for “people who have been here for a long time, stayed out of trouble, got a job, paid their taxes and their kids are American.”

“We got to start moving them toward full citizenship out of the shadows,” Kerry said.

He also criticized Bush for failing to better seal the U.S. border, saying it was “now more leaky” than it was on Sept. 11, 2001, with 4,000 people illegally entering the country each day.

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“Well, to say that the borders are not as protected as they were prior to Sept. the 11th shows he doesn’t know the borders,” Bush said, with a chuckle. “They’re much better protected today than they were when I was the governor of Texas.... He just doesn’t understand how the borders work, evidently, to say that.”

The two differed on the federal wage, currently $5.15 an hour (in California, it’s $6.75).

Kerry said an increase was “long overdue” and pledged to fight “tooth and nail” for a gradual raise to $7 an hour nationally.

Bush said he supported a minimum wage increase bill sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which was not introduced this year and was expected to offer a smaller increase than Democrats wanted.

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He defended his No Child Left Behind school reform measure, saying, “It’s really a jobs act when you think about it.”

“In order to make sure people have jobs for the 21st century, we’ve got to get it right in the education system,” Bush said.

Breaking new ground at another point, the debate produced a reflective discussion of the candidates’ personal faith.

“Prayer and religion sustain me,” Bush said. “I receive calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, ‘Well, how do you know?’ I said, ‘I just feel it.’ ”

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The president, a Methodist, said he believed “that God wants everybody to be free,” a concept he described as “part of my foreign policy.”

“In Afghanistan, I believe that the freedom there is a gift from the Almighty, and I can’t tell you how encouraged I am to see freedom on the march,” Bush said.

Kerry, a Roman Catholic, said he also believed freedom was “a gift from the Almighty.”

“Everything is a gift from the Almighty,” he said. But lamenting “a separate and unequal school system,” Kerry described the nation’s racial and economic disparities in religious terms.

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Quoting a biblical passage he often uses in speeches to minority groups to criticize Bush’s record on poverty, Kerry asked, “What does it mean, my brother, to say you have faith if there are no deeds? Faith without works is dead.”

On taxes, Bush asserted his challenger would raise taxes on middle-income Americans, despite Kerry’s repeated pledges not to do so.

Kerry, reiterating his proposal to roll back the cuts for families making over $200,000 annually, called the cuts an unconscionable giveaway to the wealthiest Americans who enjoyed the vast majority of the benefits.

“Five hundred thousand kids lost after school programs because of your budget,” Kerry said, violating one of the debate ground rules by directly addressing the president. “Now that’s not in my gut. That’s not my value system. And certainly not so that the wealthiest people in America can walk away with another tax cut.”

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Bush again criticized Kerry’s healthcare plan as a government takeover that would reduce the quality of care and balloon costs to the federal government. “I think government-run health will lead to poor-quality health, will lead to rationing, will lead to less choice.”

Peering into the camera, Kerry brushed aside Bush’s criticism. “Let me just say to America: I am not proposing a government-run program,” he said.

Kerry’s plan would build on the current system by offering incentives to employers to provide healthcare and seek to expand existing children’s programs.

On Iraq, Bush seized on comments Kerry made in an interview published Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, in which the Democrat said his goal was reducing the threat of terrorism to a “nuisance,” akin to prostitution or illegal gambling.

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Bush said the best way to secure the future for coming generations was “to stay on the offense against the terrorists and ... spread freedom and liberty around the world.”

Kerry did not respond directly. Instead, he restated his assertion that Bush “rushed us into a war, made decisions about foreign policy, pushed alliances away, and as a result, America is now bearing this extraordinary burden where we are not as safe as we ought to be.”

Paying a rare compliment to Bush, Kerry said that in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, “I thought the president did a terrific job, and I really was moved, as well as impressed, by the speech that he gave to the Congress” a few days later.

But he went on to express regret that Bush, “who called himself a uniter not a divider, is now presiding over the most divided America in the recent memory of our country.”

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In a bit of levity, the candidates both struck humorous notes in answering a question on the “strong women” they married. The president, whose facial expressions in the debate two weeks ago became fodder for comics, joked that his wife and daughters taught him “to stand up straight and not scowl.”

Kerry described himself, Bush and Schieffer as “lucky people who married up.”

“Some would say maybe me, more so than others,” said Kerry, referring to his billionaire wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.


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