Senator 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 President tagged his Democratic 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
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
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.
Two instant polls made the Massachusetts senator out to be the
winner of the debate and a third said it was a tie, but that said
nothing about the encounter's impact on the race for the
presidency. A wealth of surveys said that was close - and getting
closer, with Bush and Kerry concentrating their time and money on a
dozen or so battleground states.
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
Taxes was a particular flash point between the president and his
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 to increase taxes 98 times. "When they tried to reduce
taxes, he voted against that 127 times," he added.
"Anybody can play with those votes, everybody knows that,"
Kerry retorted to Bush.
"Senator, no one's playing with your votes," the president
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
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.