Testy face-off

Bush, Kerry debate Iraq and domestic issues in town-hall format

By John Marelius
and Toby Eckert

October 9, 2004

RON EDMONDS / Associated Press
President Bush sparred anew with Sen. John Kerry during a town-hall format last night in a converted basketball gym at Washington University in St. Louis.

* A tough audience
* Excerpts from the second presidential debate
* Bush more poised, but substance trumps style

ST. LOUIS – In an often testy rematch, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sparred over taxes and the war in Iraq in a wide-ranging debate that also ventured into abortion, stem cell research, the environment and importing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

Kerry seized on a new report of disappointing job growth released just hours earlier as proof that Bush has been an ineffective steward of the economy.

Bush insisted the economy, battered by recession and war, is on the mend. But he also said it would be burdened under the weight of massive new federal spending created by what he called his Democratic rival's extravagant programs.

Unlike the first presidential debate last week in Miami where a moderator posed all of the questions, the candidates fielded questions last night from an audience of uncommitted voters at Washington University in St. Louis.

One such voter, James Varner, asked Kerry if he would promise not to raise taxes on anybody earning less than $200,000 per year.

"Absolutely. Yes. Right into the camera," Kerry said. "Yes, I am not going to raise taxes."

Bush scoffed at the notion, contending Kerry's proposals would entail $2.2 trillion of new federal spending.

"He's going to tax everybody here to fund his programs," Bush said. "That's just reality."

Continuing their debate over the wisdom of invading Iraq, both men gave different interpretations of a comprehensive report released two days earlier by the top U.S. arms inspector for Iraq, Charles Duelfer. The report concluded Iraq had produced no weapons of mass destruction after 1991 and that its capacity to make them had diminished, not grown.

The president noted that the report also concluded Saddam Hussein sought an end to international economic sanctions so that he could restart his weapons program. Bush insisted Hussein posed a "unique threat" because he could have passed weapons along to terrorists.

Kerry used the report to buttress his charge that the war in Iraq was a catastrophic blunder abetted by Bush's misleading interpretation of intelligence about Hussein's weapons programs.

"The goal of the sanctions was not to remove Saddam Hussein, it was to remove the weapons of mass destruction," Kerry said. "And, Mr. President, just yesterday the Duelfer report told you and the whole world, they worked. He didn't have weapons of mass destruction."

On several occasions, Bush became visibly irritated at Kerry's comments, particularly when the Massachusetts senator characterized the U.S. role in Iraq as "going it alone."

"I've got to answer this," the president interjected, cutting off moderator Charles Gibson of ABC News.

"You tell Tony Blair we're going alone," he told Kerry.

Another strong exchange followed a question about whether Bush adequately prepared for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

"I remember sitting in the White House looking at those generals, saying, 'Do you have what you need in this war? Do you have what it takes?' " Bush said.

"I remember going down to the basement of the White House the day we committed our troops, as a last resort, looking at Tommy Franks and the generals on the ground, asking them, 'Do we have the right plan with the right troop level?' And they looked me in the eye and said, 'Yes, sir, Mr. President.' "

Kerry fired back: "You rely on good military people to execute the military component of the strategy, but winning the peace is larger than just the military component. . . . Military's job is to win the war. The president's job is to win the peace."

Last night's audience of 140 uncommitted voters was selected by the Gallup Organization from a random sample in St. Louis. They were determined to be people leaning toward either Bush or Kerry, but not firmly committed to their choices.

Questions were submitted in advance to Gibson, who chose an equal number of queries from the Bush-leaning and Kerry-leaning sides.

Daniel Farley asked Bush how the nation could maintain its military presence around the world without a draft when U.S. forces are stretched thin by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're not going to have a draft, period. The all-volunteer Army works," Bush responded, adding that "mass armies" were no longer needed after the end of the Cold War and with improvements in military technology.

Kerry said he does not support a draft, and that Bush's policies have created a "back-door draft" because of extended duty for the military Reserve and National Guard.

Health care, including the high cost of prescription drugs, was a major topic of discussion. When one audience member, John Horstman, asked Bush why he had blocked the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, where prices are controlled, the president said, "I haven't yet."

"I just want to make sure they're safe. When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you," Bush said. "And that's why the FDA and that's why the surgeon general are looking very carefully to make sure it can be done in a safe way."

Kerry told the audience that Bush "just didn't level with you right now again. We're not talking about Third World drugs." He also pointed out that Bush had promised to allow drug imports during his campaign four years ago.

The senator also hit back at one of Bush's refrains on the campaign trail – that frivolous lawsuits are driving up the cost of health care. Kerry said what "the president and his friends try to make a big deal out of" what is actually a relatively minor problem.

The Democrat insisted that lawsuit costs account for less than 1 percent of health care costs. Bush responded that Kerry demonstrated "a lack of understanding" of the problem.

"Doctors practice defensive medicine because of all the frivolous lawsuits that cost our government $28 billion a year," he said, adding that Kerry failed to vote on a liability reform bill before the Senate.

Going further, Bush said Kerry's plan to expand health care to millions of Americans would be "the largest increase in federal government health care ever."

"Government-sponsored health care would lead to rationing. It would ruin the quality of health care in America," he said.

Kerry's plan, while more expansive than the president's alternative, keeps health care largely private. He said Bush was mischaracterizing not only the senator's health care proposal, but his overall record by repeatedly calling Kerry a liberal. "The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around," Kerry said.

Audience questions about stem cell research and abortion spurred a clash of science and morality.

Kerry repeated his support for embryonic stem cell research by citing like-minded icons from the world of politics and entertainment, including former first lady Nancy Reagan and actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.

"I think we can save lives," Kerry said. "Now, I think we can do ethically guided embryonic stem cell research."

Kerry said there are between 100,000 and 200,000 embryos frozen at fertility clinics. "They're either going to be destroyed or left frozen," he said.

Bush, who often touts his Christian beliefs, said, "Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell."

But he also pointed out that he was the first president to allow federally funded research on a limited number of stem cell lines that were already developed.

"I did so because I, too, hope that we'll discover cures from the stem cells, from the research derived. But I think we've got to be very careful in balancing the ethics and the science," Bush said.

"Talk about walking a waffling line," Kerry responded.

The two candidates also sparred over federal funding for abortion and a late-term procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion.

Kerry noted that he was a Catholic who personally opposes abortion.

"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.

The senator indicated he supported federal funds for a full range of family planning education and services for poor women.

Bush responded, "We're not going to spend federal, taxpayers' money on abortion." He also criticized Kerry for voting against a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions and a requirement that minors notify their parents before having an abortion.

While careful to say he respected the opinions of those who disagree with him on the emotional issue, Kerry said the ban on the late-term procedure wouldn't have protected the lives or health of the mothers, and that parental notification laws would endanger victims of rape and incest.

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