Kerry challenges Bush to debates

Democrat says he wants to discuss `great issues' in monthly discussions

Election 2004

March 14, 2004|By Ray Long | Ray Long,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

QUINCY, Ill. - Campaigning yesterday in a city that played host to one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Sen. John Kerry challenged President Bush to a series of monthly debates to get beyond negative campaign attack ads and discuss "great issues."

His call for debates came as Kerry launched a round of ads to try to counter Bush advertisements that called the senator "wrong on defense" and "wrong on taxes."

"Surely, if attack ads can start now, at least, we can agree to start a real discussion about America's future," Kerry said, speaking to about 500 people in a junior high school gymnasium. He contended that "America shouldn't have to put up with eight months of sniping."

"This should be a campaign worthy of the great issues before us, a campaign that truly can give the election of America's president back to America's people," Kerry said.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Democrat surpassed the minimum 2,162 delegates needed for his party's presidential nomination, according to a tally by the Associated Press. He did so by adding superdelegate endorsements and winning the Kansas caucuses, leaving him with 2,193 at the end of the day.

Kerry underscored his debate challenge with a visit to the site where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated on Oct. 13, 1858, during a Senate campaign - a contest Lincoln lost. It was the sixth of seven debates, and was attended by about 20,000 people.

The Bush campaign did not take Kerry up on his offer.

Terry Holt, a campaign spokesman, said a debate schedule would be discussed at an "appropriate time."

"With all of the inconsistencies and flip-flops in Kerry's record, it might be more productive for Kerry to debate himself," Holt added.

He said Kerry "had to change his tone" after the senator's comments in Chicago last week when he described his Republican critics as "crooked" and "lying."

Such issues as unemployment and the war on terror demand a "historic commitment to a real and informed exchange of ideas," Kerry said yesterday.

His call for a debate is a typical tactic of challengers, political analysts say.

"Challengers usually want debates, and incumbents usually want to avoid them," said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles.

"It's a way for challengers to put the incumbent on the defensive. But at this point, I don't think that most voters are hankering for more politics on the tube."

The stop in Quincy, where Kerry's message can reach into the media markets of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois, wrapped up a contentious week between Kerry and Bush.

Bush campaign ads said Kerry wanted a $900 billion tax increase, prompting a round of Kerry ads that the candidate said would "set the record straight."

"We will have disagreements," Kerry said yesterday. "And we should discuss them because there's different ways of doing things. I think the Bush tax giveaway for the wealthy is a mistake and an injustice.

"And I believe that money could be better used to finally get health care costs under control. But let's debate that issue instead of falsely suggesting that I want to raise taxes on all Americans - when in fact I have proposed to cut taxes on the middle class."

In a relaxed moment after the speech - and before leaving Illinois for Pennsylvania and Ohio - Kerry popped into the press room, where there were signs posted "JK Press Ping-Pong Tourney" and "Winner Gets Free Beer."

Kerry picked up a paddle, knocked a few shots and then joked: "I won the beer."

The dynamic of this year's presidential contest is unique. Kerry emerged from the nominating season relatively quickly and without suffering deep scars from the primary process. That left him as the presumptive nominee months before the two political parties officially award their nominations at national conventions.

With his Democratic rivals dispatched, Kerry has been free to focus his fire on Bush, and Bush has returned the favor, launching an attack ad campaign accusing Kerry of being a big-spending liberal who is weak on national security issues.

Kerry said voters are yearning for a return to the days when candidates discussed issues the way Lincoln and Douglas did, noting that the two men left Quincy together on a steamship headed for their next debate.

"Maybe George Bush and I won't travel on the same boat or the same airplane," said Kerry. "But we can give this country a campaign that genuinely addresses our real issues and treats voters with respect."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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