BC-DEBATE:SL – national, political, world, itop (1500 words)

Kerry, Bush trade jabs in wide-ranging town-hall-style debate

(PHOTOS) (HAS TRIMS)

By Jon Sawyer

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

(KRT)

ST. LOUIS – President Bush came out swinging in the second presidential debate, assailing Sen. John Kerry for “naive and dangerous” views on Iraq and North Korea and repeatedly referring to Kerry as one of the most liberal members of Congress.

Kerry tried to address the “liberal” charge head on, telling the audience twice that it was wrong “to throw labels around” and that answers to many questions were not as simple as Bush implied.

The setting was the Washington University, where the second of three debates was held using the town hall meeting format, moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC News.

Kerry continued his own blistering attacks on Bush, and Bush responded in kind.

After Kerry decried the failure to build a stronger alliance against Saddam Hussein he promised that under his administration “we’re going to build alliances. We’re not going to go unilaterally. We’re not going to go it alone like this president did.”

Bush fairly lunged out of his chair.

“You tell Tony Blair we’re going alone!” he said, his voice rising as he rattled off the names of the British prime minister and the leaders of Italy and Poland, other countries that had joined the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. “It denigrates our alliance if you say, you know, you’re going alone.”

Kerry noted that eight countries have left the Iraq alliance already and that the contributions of those there pale in comparison to the numbers of U.S. troops deployed.

“If Missouri, just given the number of people from Missouri who are in the military over there today, were a country, it would be the third largest country in the coalition, behind Great Britain and the United States. That’s not a grand coalition.”

Bush also took issue with Kerry’s claim that he would be much tougher than Bush on stopping nuclear proliferation, in countries like Iran and North Korea.

“That answer almost made me want to scowl,” said Bush, referring to the facial reactions that brought him some criticism at last week’s debate at the University of Miami. If Bush was somewhat more restrained Friday night, there were still numerous instances of the trademark swagger, the boisterous comeback, and even a wink or two at members of the audience as he finished a reply.

Kerry scored the president for inconsistencies of his own.

When Bush said he was opposed to permitting the immediate re-importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, Kerry pointed out that this contradicted what Bush had said in the very same hall, during the presidential debate here in 2000. He said Bush had also contradicted another promise made that night as well – that he would never send troops into war without a clear exit strategy and without adequate troops.

Kerry noted twice the new job figures released Friday that confirm Bush will preside over a net loss in jobs.

Kerry appeared more tentative, and sometimes defensive, in answering Bush’s repeated attempt to define him as a big-taxing, big-spending liberal out of touch with the values of mainstream Americans.

Bush played strongly to his base among conservative voters, strongly defending his decision to limit stem-cell research and saying that the judges he would pick for the U.S. Supreme Court would be the sort who accept “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The thrust and parry between the candidates was rough but familiar, a continuation of the first debate last week and of the attacks they’ve lobbed at each other daily since.

What was different Friday night was that all the anxieties and concern – on the threat of terrorism, the troubling reports from Iraq, and uncertain prospects for the economy at home – came not from the candidates but from individuals, uncommitted voters from the St. Louis area.

They sat on risers four rows high in a three-quarter circle around the candidates, who perched on stools with a table to the side for note-taking and a glass of water. The stage had been crafted for the occasion in patriotic hues, with a red carpet, blue backdrop and on one wall the American eagle that is the logo for the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan organization that has sponsored the debates since 1988.

The last question came from Linda Grabel, who asked the president to “give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it.”

Bush referred in general to tactical errors and to mistaken personnel appointments but devoted most of his answer to a robust defense of his decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Kerry, singled out Bush’s response.

“Still to this day the president cannot admit a single mistake,” Devine said. “That’s at the heart of his problem,” he added. “You cannot hope to correct the massive problems we face in health care, in Iraq, or in the economy, until he recognizes the mistakes that have been made.”

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Elizabeth Long, saying “no one has been cured by using embryonic stem cells,” asked Kerry: “Wouldn’t it be wise to use stem cells obtained without the destruction of an embryo?”

Kerry replied that he wanted to move ahead with stem-cell research, citing support by Nancy Reagan and actor Michael J. Fox.

Matthew Dowd, senior strategist in the Bush campaign, disputed suggestions that Bush had tailored his answers on issues such as stem-cell research or abortion to solidify support among his conservative supporters. He said that in his view those exchanges were significant because they showed Bush giving clear, understandable answers on tough, delicate subjects.

“These were questions that mattered to the people in this audience and he answered,” Dowd said. “The one dodging them was John Kerry.”

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Earlier Friday the Labor Department issued its monthly jobs report, finding that 96,000 jobs had been created during August, or considerably fewer than the 150,000 needed to accommodate the monthly increase in the total available work force. The latest numbers mean that during Bush’s term, the non-farm sector has shed some 821,000 jobs. As Kerry noted again in Friday’s debate, Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a four-year decline in the number of Americans employed.

Bush focused on the positive, noting that the unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent, down from 6.3 percent in July 2003. He said that home ownership was at an all-time high, that 1.7 million jobs had been created in the past 13 months.

The two candidates clashed sharply in their interpretations of the CIA report released Wednesday that concluded Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of last year’s war and no active plans to resume their development. Bush focused on the report’s finding that Saddam had attempted to deceive the U.N. weapons inspectors assigned to Iraq.

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Conspicuously absent from Kerry’s comments at the debate was any mention of the speech earlier this week by L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. official in Iraq until June. Kerry has cited the speech all week, highlighting Bremer’s comment that the number of U.S. troops immediately after last year’s invasion was not enough to deal with the looting that followed. But on Friday Bremer published an article in the New York Times that said his criticism had been quoted out of context and that he supports Bush’s Iraq policy overall.

Bush again assailed Kerry’s statement in last week’s first debate, that U.S. interventions abroad should meet a “global test” of legitimacy. Bush says this amounts to waiting “for a grade from other nations” before acting in U.S. defense although Kerry has never said anything of the kind.

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In the debate Bush again railed against Kerry’s proposed health care reform, although without the label of “Hillary-care” he used earlier this week as shorthand for the ill-fated and bureaucratically top-heavy reform that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., championed in 1993. Kerry’s plan is much bigger than the version proposed by Bush but it is not government-run or controlled, relying instead on an expanded version of the current employer-based system.

Bush, a candidate sometimes prone to misplaced words, stumbled when asked about the possibility of reinstating a military draft.

“I hear there’s rumors on the Internets” (sic), he said, but “we’re not going to have a draft, period.”

Kerry replied that Bush had over-extended the military, with National Guard and reserve units “turned into almost active duty” and stop-loss policies that served to extend tours beyond anticipated amounts. “You’ve got a back-door draft right now,” he said.

An instant poll by ABC News declared Kerry the night’s victor but the margin was slight, 44 to 41 percent.



(c) 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): DEBATE

AP-NY-10-09-04 0032EDT



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