- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, visiting the city that saw a historic 19th-century debate, yesterday called for monthly debates with President Bush.

“We confront big issues — as big as any in our history — and they call for a new and historic commitment to a real and informed exchange of ideas,” said Mr. Kerry, speaking to a crowd of about 500 packed into a school gymnasium.

“Surely, if the attack ads can start now, at least we can agree to start a real discussion about America’s future,” the senator from Massachusetts said.

Mr. Kerry made his call in Quincy, the largest city to host the 1858 series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during a Senate campaign eventually won by Douglas. On Oct. 13 of that year, 20,000 people gathered at Quincy to hear the sixth of what would be seven debates between the two men. Although Lincoln lost the Senate race, he would defeat Douglas in the 1860 race for the presidency.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, dismissed the debate suggestion. He said that Mr. Kerry is largely responsible for the campaign’s negative tenor so far.

“After calling Republicans crooks and liars, running 17 negative ads over 15,000 times and spending $6.3 million attacking the president, John Kerry is calling for a civil debate on the issues,” Mr. Schmidt said. “John Kerry should finish the debate with himself.”

Also yesterday, Mr. Kerry put a lock on the nomination as he reached the number of convention delegates needed to become the Democrats’ candidate to take on Mr. Bush, according to a delegate tally by the Associated Press.

For months, Mr. Kerry has bashed Mr. Bush as he campaigned against rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. With eight months remaining until the election, the Bush campaign is airing some attack ads against Mr. Kerry, who has fired back.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bush issued a thinly veiled broadside against Mr. Kerry, saying in his weekly radio address that higher taxes and new trade barriers would be “a recipe for economic disaster.”

Mr. Bush never mentioned Mr. Kerry by name, unlike new television ads that began airing Friday and several speeches over the past 10 days. But the president’s arguments against the economic policies of what he called “some politicians in Washington” were the same ones he repeatedly has used against Mr. Kerry.

“They want to respond in old, ineffective ways,” Mr. Bush said. “They want to increase federal taxes, yet punishing families and small businesses is not a job-creation strategy. They want to build up trade walls and isolate America from the rest of the world, but economic isolationism would threaten the millions of good American jobs that depend on exports. These tired old policies of tax and spend and economic isolationism are a recipe for economic disaster.”

In the Democratic response, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, an ardent campaigner for Mr. Kerry, said the Bush administration has a “widening credibility gap between what the administration says and what it does.”

The administration’s assurances on the economy, education, health care and the war in Iraq don’t match the truth, Mr. Kennedy said.

“Facts don’t lie,” he said. “The Bush administration and the Republican Congress are giving schools only two-thirds of the funds they were promised” by the No Child Left Behind Act.

In Illinois, Mr. Kerry argued that the Lincoln-Douglas debates included “sharp exchanges, but they were a serious, honest discussion of important questions of the day, sparking enormous public interest.”

Voters were energized by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he said.

“Today, campaigns too often generate more heat than light, firing up partisans while leaving increasing numbers out in the cold,” Mr. Kerry said. “Everyone in politics shares the blame, but I have come here today because I believe this campaign should be different.”

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