Bush, Kerry turn up the heat

Kerry's counterattacks keep Bush off his stride

The Debates

Election 2004

October 09, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Oops, he did it again.

For the second time in a row, Sen. John Kerry put President Bush on the defensive, frustrating Bush's hopes of turning around last week's subpar debate performance with a clearly superior showing last night.

The town hall setting, which featured incisive questions from an audience of uncommitted voters, was supposed to work to Bush's affability advantage.

And while Bush was more forceful this time around, he wasn't able to put Kerry away. The president again seemed rattled by his rival's tenacious counterattacks, and only began hitting his folksy stride fairly late in the evening.

Kerry, who has pulled even with Bush in the polls, managed to achieve several of his goals: He came off as presidential and fleshed out details of his domestic agenda, effectively pivoting several times from the Iraq war to its costs here at home.

Overall, the second debate wasn't as lopsided as the first face-off, which even the Bush campaign acknowledged did not go well at all for the president.

"That answer almost made me want to scowl," Bush remarked at one point, in what sounded like a rehearsed effort to make light of his shortcomings in last week's encounter.

But he might have fallen short of what his strategists said he badly needed to accomplish. Bush had to come across as much more substantive than he did in the first debate, they said, and deliver a more effective critique of Kerry's platform and Senate record.

On that test, Bush probably earned a grade of incomplete, which heightens the importance of Wednesday's final debate.

The clearest winners inside the Washington University field house, where the debate was staged, were the citizen questioners. Repeatedly, they brought out the best in both men, forcing a substantive and serious discussion across a wide range of topics, with the help of moderator Charles Gibson of ABC.

Sharper this time

Bush, who took an unusually long time to settle down and appear relaxed, was sharper than he was in the first debate.

He said Kerry is "just not credible when he talks about being fiscally conservative," pointing to his nearly 100 votes for higher taxes. Using a line made famous by boxer Joe Louis, Bush added, "You can run but you can't hide."

But Kerry improved his performance as well.

The Democrat left no Bush charge unanswered, repeatedly rebutting the president, including throwing Bush's own lines from the 2000 campaign back at him. The Massachusetts senator pounced when Bush said he opposed allowing Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada because of safety concerns.

"Four years ago, right here in this forum, he was asked the same question: Can't people be able to import drugs from Canada? You know what he said? `I think that makes sense. I think that's a good idea' - four years ago," said Kerry, in one of several assaults on Bush's credibility.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the president just didn't level with you right now again."

Kerry, famously stiff, aloof and aristocratic, was looser and every bit as much in command as Bush.

"The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, `compassionate conservative,' what does that mean?" asked Kerry. The senator went on to accuse Bush of cutting a half-million children from after-school programs and 365,000 kids from the health-care rolls, while running up the biggest deficits in American history.

"Mr. President, you're batting 0 for 2," remarked Kerry, who was openly scornful of Bush at numerous points. The senator noted that, under the Clinton administration, the governnment balanced its budget, which is "something you don't know how to do."

Kerry's weakest moment came as he stumbled his way through a question about stem-cell research, near the close of the debate. Bush, who by that point had found his voice, dismissed the response.

"Let me make sure you understand my decision," he said. "I made the decision to balance science and ethics."

Role reversal

Going into the evening, the heavier burden was on Bush to perform well. That was a role reversal from the first debate, when the pressure was on Kerry, whose candidacy had gone flat and seemed in danger of falling dangerously far behind.

Since then, Bush has lost ground, with the race now a virtual dead heat in most national polls and key state surveys. It remains to be seen if his performance last night reassured nervous Bush supporters.

Neither man committed the sort of gaffe that could provoke a major shift in the contest. But both stumbled along the way.

Bush's verbal slips included a reference to the "Internets" and a blown attack when he used Sen. Ted Kennedy's name when he meant Kerry.

For his part, Kerry made an indecipherable charge that Bush owns a timber company and, tongue-tied, referred to "og-byn" doctors.

Bush was forceful and unyielding, refusing to give an explicit answer when asked to name three mistakes he's made as president.

"I'm human," he said, insisting that he had gotten the big decisions right and acknowledging only that he had made some bad appointments that he wouldn't embarrass those appointees by identifying.

His grimaces, scowls and smirks in the initial debate, the focus of extensive commentary and analysis, led him to control his expression more effectively.

Bush avoided coming across as arrogant. But he often seemed to be seething, which might have made him look less likable than usual.

A few minutes before the debate began, Mark McKinnon, the president's media adviser, said that the key last night for Bush was "just to be natural."

Bush's incomplete success in achieving that goal sets the stage for next week's final installment of what has become must-see television for millions of Americans.

It's the ultimate reality show, with the biggest prize of all - leadership of the free world for the next four year - going to the eventual winner.

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