San Diego Union Tribune

October 14, 2004

No holds barred
Kerry, Bush joust over Social Security, health care, immigration and more

By George E. Condon Jr.
and Toby Eckert

TEMPE, Ariz. – President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry went toe-to-toe on domestic issues last night, attacking each other's positions on Social Security, health care, immigration and abortion in a spirited and lively debate that sends the presidential campaign into its final phase.

The candidates used softer approaches to profess their religious beliefs and cast themselves as best suited to bring a polarized nation together.

But there was no biblical turning of the other cheek in this, the third and final face-off between the candidates. Coming only 20 days before the Nov. 2 election and with almost all polls showing the race deadlocked, both Bush and Kerry sought to exploit perceived weaknesses in the other.

Bush blasted Kerry's views on the war on terror as "dangerous," accused him of "bait and switch" on health care and repeatedly cited his nearly 20-year record in the Senate, saying "his rhetoric does not match the record."

The president also repeatedly called him a "liberal," chuckling as he added, "There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank."

But Kerry landed several blows of his own, drawing laughs from the audience when he hammered away at Bush's fiscal record of going from record surpluses to record deficits. "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," he said.

Even though this debate was scheduled to be devoted to domestic issues, moderator Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS News correspondent, opened it with a question about when Americans will feel safe at home from the threat of terrorism.

It permitted the candidates to reprise their differences on the conduct of the war in Iraq and its relationship to the war on terror.

The only new twist came when Kerry tweaked Bush for remarks he made at the White House in 2002 that Bush last night essentially denied that he said.

"Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, 'Where's Osama bin Laden?' He said, 'I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned.' .... "

Bush seemed surprised by the comment. "Gosh," he said, "I don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. That's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."

In 2002, Bush said in West Virginia, "We are not too worried about him." And also in 2002, Bush said at the White House, " ..... I don't know where he is. I truly am not that concerned about him."

A topic not much discussed during the campaign – illegal immigration – was added to the agenda by Schieffer, who said that no issue had drawn more e-mail from Americans who wanted to know how the contenders would stem the tide coming across the border, not far from the debate site at Arizona State University.

Bush and Kerry disagreed on the most basic level of whether illegal immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border is now less of a problem because of Bush administration policies. Kerry said it is more porous since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush was incredulous at the charge.

Teresa Heinz Kerry (left) and first lady Laura Bush greeted each other in Tempe, Ariz., last night after their husbands debated for a third and final time before the presidential election, which is less than three weeks away.
"To say that the borders are not as protected as they were prior to September the 11th shows he doesn't know the borders," he said, chuckling. "They're much better protected today than they were when I was the governor of Texas."

Kerry shot back with statistics, contending that 4,000 illegal immigrants cross the border each day. "The fact is our borders are not as secure as they ought to be, and I'll make them secure," said the Massachusetts senator said.

Kerry said he supports a plan that would put undocumented workers on a path to U.S. citizenship. But Bush stood firm for a policy of work permits for up to six years, adding, "I don't think we ought to reward illegal behavior. There are plenty of people standing in line to become a citizen, and we ought not to crowd these people ahead of them in line. If they want to become a citizen, they can stand in line, too."

Both seemed to deal gingerly with the issue, aware that illegal immigration is a hot-button topic that divides their own supporters. Among Democrats, many elements of organized labor are resentful of job competition from illegal immigration, while members of the Hispanic community want more open borders. Within the GOP, free-market advocates argue for open borders, while many conservatives say illegal immigration is weakening the status of U.S.-born workers.

Just as contentious were questions about abortion.

Bush staked out a strong position against abortion, faulting Kerry for his refusal to oppose a late-term procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.

But the president, as he has in the past, refused to answer a direct question of whether or not he wants to outlaw abortion by overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Kerry said, "I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade."

Kerry was asked about a report that some Catholic bishops are telling their church members it would be a sin to vote for candidates, like Kerry, who support abortion rights and broad stem-cell research.

"I completely respect their views," Kerry responded. "I am a Catholic and I grew up learning how to respect those views, but I disagree with them, as do many," he said. " .... What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn't share that article of faith. I believe that choice is a woman's choice."

Health care plan
The two clashed on Kerry's health care plan, with the senator insisting he would not impose a government program on anybody and would maintain personal choice for the patient. But Bush insisted Kerry's plan would be too costly and too bureaucratic.

"We have a fundamental difference of opinion," said Bush. "I think government-run health will lead to poor-quality health, will lead to rationing, will lead to less choice."

Schieffer asked Bush whether he believes that homosexuals choose their sexual orientation. "You know, Bob, I don't know," Bush said.

But the president said consenting adults should have the right to live as they choose, though he reiterated his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. "I think it's very important that we protect marriage as an institution .... I proposed a constitutional amendment," the president said.

Kerry took a different approach. "We're all God's children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as," Kerry responded. "It's not a choice."

He also noted that he opposed same-sex marriages, but that it is not a matter that should be addressed in the Constitution.

On other issues:

Kerry supported raising the minimum wage, and Bush said there were better ways to build jobs.

Kerry blamed Bush for the loss of jobs on his watch, but Bush blamed economic conditions and credited his tax cut with the recent creation of jobs.

Bush answered a question on affirmative action by lamenting "quotas," while Kerry said affirmative action is still needed for minorities and women.

On guns, Kerry blamed Bush for the failure of Congress to extend the assault-weapons ban.

Though Bush said he supported the ban, he did not actively try to get Congress to extend it.

"I did think we ought to extend the assault-weapons ban, and was told the fact that the bill wasn't ever going to move because Republicans and Democrats were against the assault-weapon ban," Bush said.

Role of religion
But Kerry called it "a failure of presidential leadership," saying it made America's streets more dangerous and would open an avenue for terrorists who seek weapons here.

"Most of the law enforcement agencies in America wanted that assault-weapons ban. They don't want to go into a drug bust and be facing an AK-47," he said. "If (House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay or someone in the House said to me, 'Sorry, we don't have the votes,' I would have said, 'Then we're going to have a fight.' And I would have taken it out to the country, and I would have had every law enforcement officer in the country visit those congressmen."

Asked about the role that religion plays in his official decisions, Bush said, "Prayer and religion sustain me. 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.' ... "

He added that he believed "freedom in Afghanistan is a gift from the Almighty."

Kerry said that "everything is a gift from the Almighty" and added that he respected Bush's faith. But he also said that people should be judged by their actions.

Kerry praised the president for uniting the country in the days after Sept. 11, but said Bush has presided over a divisive administration.

"I regret to say that the president, who called himself 'a uniter, not a divider,' is now presiding over the most divided America in the recent memory of our country," Kerry said.

Bush responded that he had worked with Democrats on issues such as the No Child Left Behind Act and tax cuts. "But," he said, "Washington is a tough town. The way I view it is there's a lot of entrenched interests there."

Copley News Service correspondent Finlay Lewis contributed to this report.

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