Bush, Kerry turn up the heat

Kerry hits Bush on jobs, health care

president calls Democrat big spender

In 2nd debate, they field audience questions

The Debates

Election 2004

October 09, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. LOUIS, Mo. - John Kerry ripped into President Bush's record on jobs, health care and the environment, and said he would fight for ordinary Americans as the president accused the Democrat of being a big-spending liberal who would raise taxes during a lively presidential debate on foreign and domestic issues.

Bush, known for disarming audiences with his easygoing manner, was uncharacteristically defensive last night as he fought to halt any momentum Kerry gained from the first debate last week, when the senator drew favorable reviews that have helped boost him in the polls.

"He's proposed $2.2 trillion in new spending, and he says he going to tax the rich to close the tax gap," Bush said. "He can't. He's going to tax everybody here to fund his programs. That's just reality."

Kerry countered by saying the president was "trying to scare everybody here" by tagging him as a tax-boosting politician, and - prompted by an audience questioner - looked into the camera and pledged not to raise taxes on people earning less than $200,000.

"Yes, right into the camera," Kerry said, staring into the camera lens. "Yes, I am not going to raise taxes. I'm pledging I will not raise taxes. I'm giving a tax cut to the people earning less than $200,000 a year."

Bush and Kerry faced each other in a far more intimate setting than their last meeting, a gymnasium at Washington University in St. Louis set up as a theater in the round.

With the two candidates locked in a virtual tie in national polls and surveys of battleground states, Kerry was working to build on his success last week, and he and the president presented starkly different views.

Drug imports

In a key exchange, Bush struggled to explain why he has blocked efforts to allow U.S.-made drugs to be re-imported from countries such as Canada, where they are available at a fraction of the cost in the United States.

"I haven't yet. I just want to make sure they're safe," Bush said. "When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you," Bush said.

Kerry said Bush's opposition is an example of the president's favoring special interests over ordinary people. "The president sides with the power companies, the oil companies, the drug companies. And I'm fighting to let you get those drugs from Canada," Kerry said.

The president said his tax cuts had helped recharge an economy sapped by a recession he inherited and a war.

"We cut taxes for everybody," Bush said. "Everybody got tax relief so that they get out of the recession."

He said Kerry is "just not credible when he talks about being fiscally conservative" and that "either he's going to break all these wonderful promises he's talked about, or he's going to raise taxes."

Later, Bush said Kerry couldn't mask his Senate record, which the president said shows that the Democrat is in favor of tax increases. "I mean, he's got a record. It's been there for 20 years," Bush said. "You can run, but you can't hide."

Kerry accused Bush of turning a huge surplus into a large deficit while cutting taxes on wealthy Americans. Bush "thinks its more important to fight for that top one percent than to fight for fiscal responsbility and to fight for you," the senator said.

Face to face

It was the first opportunity for the two candidates to square off face to face on domestic issues, but it was also a chance for both men - freed from the constraints of a podium and stationary microphone - to try to connect with voters on a more personal level as they moved about a small stage surrounded by about 150 voters armed with prescreened questions.

They went after each other aggressively and breathlessly at times in a substantive debate that touched on issues including the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, the economy, abortion and stem-cell research.

Audience members had submitted questions in advance, and the moderator, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, called on them, sometimes stepping in to prompt the candidates for follow-up answers

The format of the debate played to the strengths of the president, who selected a theater-in-the-round setup for his acceptance speech last month at the Republican convention in New York City. But Bush sometimes seemed irritated or ill at ease during the exchange, which lasted a bit more than 90 minutes.

At one point, in what was supposed to be one of his harshest hits at Kerry, Bush called his opponent "Senator Kennedy" as he accused him of being "the most liberal senator of all. And that's saying something in that bunch."

On foreign policy, Bush batted away accusations by Kerry that he rushed to war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence, taking his eye off the threat from Osama bin Laden. Kerry noted a new report by Charles Duelfer, the top American weapons inspector, that Saddam Hussein had not produced weapons of mass destruction for a decade before the U.S. invasion last year.

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