A last clash on jobs, taxes, health

Bush and Kerry exchange verbal shots in 3rd, final debate of hard-fought race

A sharp divide on abortion, war, Social Security

Election 2004

The debates

October 14, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TEMPE, ARIZ. — TEMPE, Ariz.- Sen. John Kerry blamed President Bush for turning his back on the nation's economic woes while Bush accused the Democrat of plotting to raise taxes on Americans to finance big-government plans, as the two candidates grappled for advantage during the final presidential debate.

"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush told Kerry, as the president defended his record and painted his opponent's plans as a "bait and switch" that would end up hurting Americans.

Kerry got off his own one-liner, calling the president's talk of fiscal discipline while presiding over a growing budget deficit "a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order."

The debate, held in an auditorium at Arizona State University, covered issues ranging from immigration and gun rights to abortion and racism. It was the last time the two candidates, locked in a virtual tie in national polls, will engage face to face before Election Day. The discussion of domestic policy, moderated by CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, was a rare moment of substantive discussion before what promises to be a nasty, sound bite-heavy final stretch to Nov. 2.

Kerry aides were hoping the lively exchange on domestic issues would shift voters' focus from Iraq and terrorism to pocketbook issues closer to home, which will be the subject of a series of speeches by the senator in the coming days.

Bush was working to regain the upper hand after two debates that helped Kerry erase the president's lead in the polls and tighten the contest.

On domestic issues

Touting his plans to create jobs and improve health care, Kerry said Bush had missed opportunities to do both and pledged that, as president, he would do better.

"I'm going to stand up and fight for the American worker," Kerry said.

"Guess what, America: The wages of Americans have gone down," Kerry said later. "And the president just walks on by this problem."

Bush called Kerry's criticism of his record on creating jobs and helping Americans afford health care a "litany of misstatements" and pointed to his tax cut as a boon for the middle class.

"You've got more money in your pocket as a result of the tax relief we passed and he opposed," Bush said.

As Kerry touted his plans to create jobs, raise the minimum wage and improve health care, Bush accused the Democrat of pitching unrealistic plans that would result in higher taxes for Americans. "A plan is not a litany of complaints, and a plan is not to lay out a proposal that you can't pay for," Bush said. "It's an empty promise - it's called bait and switch."

He cited an independent study which assessed the cost of the Kerry plan that would reduce the ranks of the uninsured at $1.2 trillion. But Bush did not mention that the study predicted that the cost would be reduced by about $400 billion in new tax revenue, which Kerry says will be raised by taxing the wealthy.

Bush also ridiculed Kerry's pledges to restore fiscal discipline in Washington, saying that his version of "pay-as-you-go" budget enforcement rules "means you pay and he goes ahead and spends."

Kerry promised to balance the budget even as he improves education and health care.

Some of the widest divisions were on health care. Bush said health care costs are rising because consumers are not in charge of their medical choices, and he promoted his plan to provide tax credits to purchase individual health coverage and tax incentives to save for out-of-pocket costs.

"I think government-run health will lead to poor-quality health, will lead to rationing, will lead to less choice," Bush said.

Kerry blamed Bush for making health care more expensive by blocking proposals to bring down the costs, including a measure that would allow Americans to bring U.S.-made drugs available in Canada at a fraction of the cost to be brought back into this country. He defended his plan to cover 27 million people who lack health insurance and give Americans tax breaks to help them afford employer-provided insurance.

"I don't force you to do anything. It's not a government plan," Kerry said.

Bush's characteristic mannerisms, missing somewhat from the first two debates, were back in evidence last night. Bush entered the stage with a wink. After a particularly long list of Kerry criticisms on his domestic record, Bush shook his head and, with mock exhaustion, exclaimed "Woo!" before launching into a rebuttal. He smirked and shook his head as Kerry delivered his "Soprano" line.

Kerry, whose delivery had been uncharacteristically concise in the two previous debates, also seemed to revert to form last night, sometimes launching into long, jargon-filled explanations of his domestic plans and using the acronym for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as he spoke about the future of Social Security benefits.

In perhaps the most spirited exchange, Bush defended his record on jobs and education.

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