ST. LOUIS – Heading into a crucial debate tonight, President Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq in the face of a CIA report that contradicted his main reasons for last year’s invasion while Sen. John Kerry said Bush may be leaving him with an Iraq as chaotic as Lebanon in the 1980s.

With polls showing the presidential race tightening, the debate at Washington University will play out against the backdrop of harsh comments from both candidates responding to the report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq who said he discovered no evidence of weapons of mass destruction either stockpiled or under development by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Bush on Thursday conceded that Iraq did not have the stockpiles of banned weapons he had warned of before the invasion last year but he maintained that Saddam retained the “means and the intent” to produce such weapons and the U.S. was right to take action.

Kerry continued Thursday to put pressure on Bush, maintaining his tough critique of the president’s handling of the war in Iraq and repeating his scathing remarks on Bush’s decision to shift attention from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. If elected, Kerry said, he may face a situation in Iraq as chaotic as Lebanon once was in the early 1980s.

With both candidates ratcheting up the rhetoric, Friday’s debate in a town hall-styled forum on a college campus could produce new sparks with a select audience of undecided voters posing questions to the president and his Democratic rival. Beyond Iraq, Bush and Kerry are likely to face questions on a wide array of issues including threats of terrorism and the state and future of the American economy.

More crucially for Bush, this nationally viewed encounter – the second of three debates – could offer the president a needed second chance to reclaim his authority after the first debate last week boosted Kerry’s standing in public opinion polls. Four years ago, Bush seized that opportunity in his second debate with Democrat Al Gore, and that propelled Bush’s campaign.

But Friday’s forum, with a little more than three weeks to go in the campaign, could spur or at least maintain Kerry’s fortunes as the two head into a final debate dedicated to domestic issues next week in Arizona. Because he fared well in his first encounter with the president, Kerry enters the second round facing the pressure of repeating his own performance.

“The story line is so perfectly obvious,” said Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry adviser attempting to soft-pedal Kerry’s chances for Friday. “Bush comeback wins second debate. Sets up rubber match in Arizona.”

Before heading to St. Louis, Bush only briefly acknowledged the most damaging finding of the report on weapons of mass destruction, though the president allowed that it found “Iraq did not have the weapons that our intelligence believed were there.”

Rather, Bush attempted to focus on a central new finding of inspector Charles Duelfer’s report: that Saddam had sold vouchers in his oil-for-food program for $11 billion to foreign individuals and governments.

“The Duelfer report showed that Saddam was systematically gaming the system, using the U.N. oil-for-food program to try to influence countries and companies in an effort to undermine sanctions,” Bush said. “He was doing so with the intent of restarting his weapons program once the world looked away.”

“Based on all the information we have today,” Bush maintained, “I believe we were right to take action, and America is safer today with Saddam Hussein in prison.”

Kerry, seizing upon findings that Saddam had destroyed his ability to make mass weapons in the early 1990s, called it “more definitive evidence as to why George Bush should not be re-elected.” Kerry, saying international sanctions and inspections had kept Saddam from rebuilding his weapons program, charged: “The president is not telling the truth.”

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

The senator accused Bush of engaging in “a pattern of deception,” and promised “you’ll always get the truth from me.” Taking a break from debate preparations in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colo., Kerry stood with his back to the Rocky Mountains and told reporters that “the president this morning was in absolute full spin mode about the CIA report.”

Accusing Bush of “serious errors in judgment,” Kerry asked: “So how does President Bush respond? Does he take responsibility for his mistakes? Does he recognize publicly how bad the situation is and lead the way a leader should lead? Of course not. The president responded with a brand new stump speech featuring more dishonest attacks on me.”

“He’s claiming I misled America about weapons,” Bush replied later, at an outdoor campaign rally in Wausau, Wis., where Bush described Kerry’s changing stances on the war. “Now today my opponent tries to say I made up reasons to go to war. … Just who’s the one trying to mislead the American people?”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

As for Friday’s debate, the rules of engagement could play to the president’s personal strength in commanding an audience with a Texas-tongued rapport. His Democratic rival, 20 years a senator from Massachusetts, has more difficulty mustering that connection. The president has appeared at “Ask Bush” rallies for months. Still, Kerry has answered questions on his feet at forums such as these since last winter, and has stepped up town hall-styled events in the last week.

“The town hall format plays to President Bush’s strength,” McCurry said. “He is amiable. There is no question about that. He’s an engaging personality.”

Kerry’s prowess as a debater also poses a challenge for Bush, who often appeared hesitant and defensive in the face of Kerry’s unrelenting criticism in their first encounter.

“Given the president’s performance in the first debate, he doesn’t have to have a good debate but an extraordinary debate,” said Mike Donilon, a Kerry consultant.

Bush’s advisers say “the burden of proof” remains on Kerry to make the case that he can lead the country.

“This debate will be another opportunity for Sen. Kerry to do something that he did not do in the first debate,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said, “which is to overcome the threshold question, given his record and given his vision, why the American people should trust him to be commander-in-chief at this critical time.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

The questions on Friday night, with as many as 20 coming from people selected in a scientific survey of voters uncommitted to either candidate, also could provide for a testy exchange between the two men.

More than 70 percent of all Americans surveyed saw the first debate Sept. 30 at the University of Miami, according to a Gallup Poll, and most deemed Kerry the victor of a face-off focused strictly on national security.

If history is any guide, there is no telling who might claim the advantage after this second round.

Bush rebounded in the second debate of 2000, according to Gallup Polls that found Gore favored among viewers of the first meeting. Indeed, Gallup recorded a dramatic reversal for the two.

But Republican Bob Dole failed to recover after his first debate with Democrat Bill Clinton.

Bill Hillsman, an advertising consultant in hotly contested Minnesota who helped former Gov. Jesse Ventura get elected, calls this round “still critical for Kerry. He hasn’t closed the deal yet. A good salesman always closes the deal, and I don’t think Kerry has come near that yet.”



(Tribune correspondents Mark Silva with the Bush campaign in Wisconsin and St. Louis, Jill Zuckman with the Kerry campaign in Colorado, and Jeff Zeleny in Washington contributed to this report.)



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

—–

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): debate

AP-NY-10-07-04 2047EDT



Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.