TEMPE, Ariz. – Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday night that President Bush bears responsibility for a misguided war in Iraq, lost jobs at home and mounting millions without health care. The Republican incumbent tagged his rival as a lifelong liberal bent on raising taxes and government spending.

“There’s a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank,” Bush said in the final debate of a close and contentious campaign for the White House. “Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”

Undeterred, the Democratic challenger said many of the nation’s ills can be laid at Bush’s feet.

He “regrettably rushed us into war” in Iraq, Kerry said, and the country is less safe as a result. He said 11 consecutive presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have been hit with recession and war, yet “none of them lost jobs the way this president has.”

As for health care, the Democratic senator said, 5 million Americans have lost coverage under Bush’s watch. “The president has turned his back on the wellness of America, and there is no system and it’s starting to fall apart,” Kerry said.

Kerry and the president also debated abortion, gay rights, immigration and more in a 90-minute debate that underscored deep differences only 19 campaign days before Election Day.

This debate was similar in format to the first – the two rivals standing behind identical lecterns set precisely 10 feet apart. Bush was on better behavior, though, and there was no grimacing and scowling this time when it was Kerry’s turn to speak.

The encounter was also a policy wonk’s dream – a blizzard of facts and figures, references to “budget caps” and other terms meaningful only to Washington insiders.

It also turned into a tug of war of sorts over Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican maverick who is Kerry’s Senate friend but Bush’s campaign supporter. Kerry twice invoked his name during the debate, and the second time Bush pounced.

“John McCain is for me for president” he said, because of his position on Iraq. Kerry, he said, offers a policy of “retreat and defeat.”

Taxes was a particular flash point between the president and his challenger.

Questioned by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS, Kerry said he would follow through on his plan to roll back tax cuts for Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year while preserving the reductions that have gone to lower and middle income wage earners.

Under Bush, he said, the tax burden of the wealthy has gone down and that of the middle class has gone up. But Bush said Kerry would never stick to his promise, and his election would mean higher taxes for all.

He said that in more than 20 years in the Senate, Kerry had voted 97 times to raise taxes and twice as often against cutting them.

“Anybody can play with those votes, everybody knows that,” Kerry retorted to Bush.

“Senator, no one’s playing with your votes,” the president said.

Bush made a similar point when the debate turned to health care. While Kerry said he had a plan to help expand health coverage for those who lack it, Bush said, “plan is not a litany of complaints. And a plan is not to lay out programs you can’t pay for.”

The president said Kerry’s proposal would cost the government $7,700 per family. “If every family in America signed up, it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years,” he said. “It’s an empty promise. It’s called bait-and-switch.”

The two men disagreed over abortion, Kerry saying the choice should be “between a woman, God and her doctor.”

The president said he wants to promote a “culture of life, and said Kerry voted “out of the mainstream” when he opposed legislation to ban so-called partial birth abortions.

Asked directly whether he supports overturning the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to abortion, Bush sidestepped. “What you’re asking me is will I have a litmus test for my judges, and the answer is no,” the president said.

The president dodged a bit, too, when the issue of a minimum wage increase came up.

Kerry said emphatically he favors one, and said that Republicans in control of Congress had repeatedly blocked Democratic attempts to pass legislation.

Bush said he supported “Mitch McConnell’s” bill to raise the minimum wage, without explanation. McConnell is a Republican senator from Kentucky. As a candidate four years ago, Bush said he favored raising a minimum wage so long as individual states were permitted to exclude workers within their borders.

Bush and Kerry agreed on one point, stating that marriage should be preserved for heterosexual couples. But they gave different answers when asked about whether homosexuality was a choice.

“I don’t know,” said the president.

Kerry referred to Vice President Dick Cheney’s gay daughter, and said it was not a choice. “We’re all God’s children,” he said.

Kerry said that the recent expiration of a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons was a “failure of presidential leadership” and that because of it, terrorists can purchase weapons at gun shows in the United States.

Bush said there weren’t enough votes in Congress to extend the ban.

But Kerry said if he were told by Tom DeLay he’d insist on a fight to win the necessary support. DeLay, R-Texas, is the House majority leader and an opponent of gun control.

Asked about the Catholic bishops who have advised parishioners it would be a sin to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, Kerry evoked the name of John F. Kennedy, another Massachusetts senator and the first Catholic elected president.

He quoted Kennedy’s famous 1960 campaign statement in which he said he wasn’t running to become a Catholic president, but the first president who happens to be a Catholic.


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