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Friday, October 08, 2004

New York Times > In Town Hall Setting, Bush and Kerry Spar on Jobs and Iraq

October 8, 2004
By ROBIN TONER
and ADAM NAGOURNEY
resident Bush forcefully defended his economic record and his decision to invade Iraq in the second presidential debate on Friday, while Senator John Kerry asserted that Mr. Bush was conducting a negative, misleading campaign because he lacked the record to justify re-election.
In the opening minutes of the 90-minute forum, held at Washington University in St. Louis and featuring questions from an audience of 140 uncommitted voters, the two men immediately began a series of attacks and counterattacks.
Mr. Bush, aggressive from the start, told the audience that Mr. Kerry had consistently shifted positions on Iraq and was unsuited to lead the nation in a dangerous era. "I don't see how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty,'' with a record of such inconsistency, Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush defended his handling of Iraq, asserting that he saw a "unique threat'' in Mr. Hussein, "as did my opponent,'' adding, "We all thought there were weapons there.''
Mr. Kerry asserted that Mr. Bush was attacking him to deflect attention from his record. "The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception,'' Mr. Kerry said. "And the result is you've been bombarded with advertisements suggesting that I've changed my position on this, that, or the other thing''
The Democratic challenger also quickly noted that Mr. Bush was the first president since the Depression to preside over a net loss of jobs.
The first questioner asked Mr. Kerry about his reputation for being "wishy-washy." He answered by starting an attack on Mr. Bush's credibility, saying the president's campaign was a "weapon of mass deception." Mr. Kerry said he had differences with Mr. Bush over the implementation of several major pieces of legislation, including the Patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind education law, but that he had been consistent in the way he approached economic and foreign policy.
Referring to Mr. Bush's tax cuts, Mr. Kerry said his economic policy would not focus on helping the wealthy, as the president's had. "That's not wishy-washy, that's what I'm fighting for - you," Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Bush pressed his case that Mr. Kerry had caved in to political pressure, especially over Iraq.
"I see why people in your workplace think he changes positions a lot because he does," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush mentioned Mr. Kerry's position for the Iraq war, his positions on tax cuts and other matters on which the Bush campaign has tried to portray Mr. Kerry's position as ever-shifting.
"I don't see how in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, you can change your mind because of politics," Mr. Bush said.
Asked if it was "reasonable" to attack Iraq when it had no more access to banned chemical, biological and nuclear weapons than did countries like North Korea, the president said: "I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein, as did my opponent, because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. And the unique threat was that he could give them to Al Qaeda."
If Mr. Kerry's approach had been followed, Mr. Bush said, "Saddam Hussein would still be in power and the world would be more dangerous."
In his response, Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush was trying to distract the public with the accusation that Mr. Kerry had changed his mind because the domestic situation was a mess.
"The president wishes I had changed my mind," Mr. Kerry said. "He wants you to believe that, because he can't come here and tell you he's created new jobs for Americans," Mr. Kerry said. "We've got five million Americans who've lost their health care, 96,000 of them right here in Missouri," he said.
"I've never changed my mind about Iraq," he said. He said he had always thought Mr. Hussein was a threat, and wanted to give the president authority to use force against him back in the Clinton administration.
But he criticized Mr. Bush's conduct of the war. "This president rushed to war, pushed our allies aside, and Iran now is more dangerous, and so is North Korea, with nuclear weapons," he said.
Mr. Bush "took his eye off the ball" with his focus on Iraq, Mr. Kerry said.
Responding to Mr. Bush's claim that sanctions had not been working, Mr. Kerry said the fact that Mr. Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction demonstrated that diplomacy was indeed working. If the United States had used smart diplomacy, Mr. Kerry said, "We could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden could be in jail or dead."
The debate - the second of three scheduled encounters between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry - came at a difficult time for the president, after a week of setbacks on the domestic and foreign policy fronts and a series of polls showing the race statistically even.
Just hours before the debate began, the Labor Department reported private sector job growth of 96,000 in September, a weaker-than-expected showing that Republicans scrambled to defend. It was the last jobs report before the election, and Democrats were quick to note that Mr. Bush was the first president since Herbert Hoover to seek re-election with a net loss in jobs during his term - 585,000 in Mr. Bush's case.
Mr. Bush was also on the defensive after the chief United States weapons inspector for Iraq issued a report on Wednesday that said there was no evidence that Mr. Hussein had, or was about to acquire, prohibited unconventional weapons - undermining a central rationale for the war.
The political pressures for Mr. Bush were heightened because of his lackluster performance in the first debate, when he repeatedly showed his irritation and impatience at Mr. Kerry's criticism. Before that debate, Mr. Bush had held a modest but significant lead in almost every poll. That lead quickly eroded; a Time Magazine poll released Friday, taken Oct. 6 and Oct. 7, found each man with 45 percent of the vote.
In the face of those challenges, Mr. Bush came back swinging this week, asserting that the Democratic challenger would purse a "policy of retreat'' in Iraq and advance policies that "would weaken America'' at a dangerous time.
The Kerry campaign entered the debate on a decidedly confident note, with Democrats convinced that the campaign's core message - that Mr. Bush was out of touch with reality on the economy and Iraq - was striking a powerful chord with the voters. The Kerry team handed out rose-colored glasses at the debate to underscore their point that Mr. Bush failed to see the problems confronting Americans.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, fielded volunteers in dolphin suits (one named Flipper) to highlight their assertion that Mr. Kerry's 20-year Senate career was full of flip-flops on national security, the economy, and other major issues.
The debate, which was moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC, required Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush to answer questions from voters who were leaning toward one candidate but were still uncommitted. The voters were selected by the Gallup Organization, and submitted their questions in advance to Mr. Gibson, who picked which would be asked. The debate was intended to be evenly divided between domestic and foreign policy.
The third and final debate will be held next Wednesday at Arizona State University.
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