- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

ST. LOUIS — President Bush, abandoning his reluctance to attack Sen. John Kerry’s record, last night used their second debate to aggressively paint Mr. Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal who kowtows to foreign capitals.

“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Mr. Bush said at the second of three presidential debates. “I mean, he’s got a record. He’s been there [in the Senate] for 20 years.”

In case anyone missed his point, he said, “They don’t name him the most liberal in the United States Senate, because he hasn’t shown up to many meetings. They named him because of his votes, and it’s reality.”

Mr. Kerry kept up his own vigorous attacks on the president, even reversing traditional party roles to blast Mr. Bush for never having vetoed a spending bill.

“Why haven’t you vetoed something?” said the Massachusetts Democrat, echoing a question from a member of the town-hall-style audience.

“If you care about it, why don’t you veto it?” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to stand up and fight somewhere, folks.”

The 98-minute town-hall gathering, their first clash on domestic policy, was less formal and more pointed than last week’s debate in Coral Gables, Fla., where both candidates stayed behind lecterns. This time, they walked in front of a small audience, clutching microphones in one hand and gesturing with the other.

Unlike the first debate last week, but like Vice President Dick Cheney did earlier this week, a confident Mr. Bush constantly brought up Mr. Kerry’s Senate voting record. He pointed out that the nonpartisan National Journal magazine has rated Mr. Kerry as the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate.

“And that’s saying something in that bunch,” he said. “That took a lot of hard work.”

Mr. Bush said Mr. Kerry’s liberalism was evident in his health care plan.

“It’s the largest increase in federal government health care ever. And it fits with his philosophy,” Mr. Bush said, adding that Mr. Kerry’s plan would lead to “rationing.”

“That’s what liberals do. They create government-sponsored health care. Maybe you think that makes sense. I don’t,” Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Kerry dismissed the “liberal” label.

“The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around,” he said, before attacking Mr. Bush’s own self-described moniker from four years ago.

“Compassionate conservative, what does that mean? Cutting 500,000 kids from after-school programs, cutting 365,000 kids from health care, running up the biggest deficits in American history. Mr. President, you’re batting 0 for 2,” he said.

The president hammered Mr. Kerry on his statement that there should be a “global test” before the nation takes pre-emptive military action.

“That’s the kind of mind-set that says sanctions were working,” Mr. Bush said. “That’s the kind of mind-set that said: Let’s keep it at the United Nations and hope things go well.

“Saddam Hussein was a threat because he could have given weapons of mass destruction to terrorist enemies,” he added. “Sanctions were not working. The United Nations was not effective at removing Saddam Hussein.”

But Mr. Kerry said that the report by Charles A. Duelfer on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq showed that international efforts were working and that Mr. Bush was rash to go to war.

“He didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President. That was the objective,” he said. “And if we’d used smart diplomacy, we could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq, and right now, Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead. That’s the war against terror.”

In the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, Mr. Kerry, when asked whether pre-emptive military action could be justified, said that as president, he would reserve that right, but also said it should be subjected to a “global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

Mr. Bush tried to portray Mr. Kerry as too worried about being “popular in certain capitals in Europe,” citing the Democrat’s support for both the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto global-warming treaty.

“It’s one of these deals where, in order to be popular in the halls of Europe, you sign a treaty. But I thought it would cost a lot — I think there’s a better way to do it,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Kerry acknowledged that the Kyoto global-warming treaty was “flawed,” but said Mr. Bush’s rejection of it was emblematic of his philosophy.

“This president didn’t try to fix it. He just declared it dead, ladies and gentlemen, and we walked away from the work of 160 nations over 10 years,” Mr. Kerry said, addressing the woman who asked a question earlier about U.S. prestige around the world. “You wonder, Nikki, why it is that people don’t like us in some parts of the world. You just say: ‘Hey, we don’t agree with you. Goodbye.’ ”

The two men sat on stools with the audience in a semicircle around them. Both wore dark suits, with Mr. Bush wearing a blue tie and Mr. Kerry wearing a red one.

Mindful of criticism of his facial expressions during Mr. Kerry’s answers in the first debate, Mr. Bush yesterday seemed to be trying to keep control — and at one point even winked at the audience during an answer from Mr. Kerry.

After Mr. Kerry’s answer to a question on Iran, the president joked, “That answer almost made me want to scowl.”

As if to respond to criticisms that he was lethargic in the first debate, at one point after Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush was “going alone” in military action, an angry Mr. Bush demanded to answer.

When moderator Charles Gibson of ABC tried to move on to another question on the same topic, the president simply talked over him.

“Tell Tony Blair we’re going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we’re going alone. Tell Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland we’re going alone,” he said, naming leaders of other countries in the Iraq coalition. “We’ve got 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we’re going alone, to discount their sacrifices.”

Mr. Kerry, though, said countries are leaving the coalition, not joining.

“Ninety percent of the casualties are American. Ninety percent of the cost are coming out of your pockets,” he said. “I could do a better job. My plan does a better job. And that’s why I’ll be a better commander in chief.”

Mr. Kerry also said Mr. Bush has failed to enforce fiscal discipline, comparing him unfavorably to former President Bill Clinton.

“We did something that you don’t know how to do,” he said. “We balanced the budget. And we paid down the debt of our nation for two years in a row, and we created 23 million new jobs at the same time.”

In one of his strongest attacks of the night, Mr. Kerry said the president failed to make good on his promise four years ago during the debate at Washington University to allow importation of prescription drugs from Canada.

“We’re not talking about Third World drugs. We’re talking about drugs made right here in the United States of America that have American brand names on them in American bottles,” he said. “The president blocked it.”

As often as Mr. Bush called Mr. Kerry a liberal, Mr. Kerry said the president was just tossing around labels in order to hide his own record of failure.

“Don’t throw the labels around. Labels don’t mean anything,” he said.

Mr. Kerry was asked two pointed questions about his support for stem-cell research and for public funding of abortions. He told both questioners that he respected their convictions, but on stem-cell research, he said scientific research was paramount, and on abortion, he said he couldn’t let his personal feelings as a Catholic interfere with the right to an abortion.

Still, Mr. Kerry did not directly answer the abortion question, in which the questioner sought a guarantee that no Americans would have to see their tax money used to support abortion, although there was a veiled critical reference to Mr. Bush’s opposition to funding groups that provide abortions in foreign countries.

Mr. Bush did answer the abortion question, saying he flatly opposes federal funding of abortion.

For his part, Mr. Bush also took pains to disabuse Americans of the notion that he will resume the military draft, a rumor that he said was being spread via the Internet.

“Forget all this stuff about a draft,” he said forcefully. “We’re not going to have a draft as long as I’m the president.”

Mr. Kerry fired back by complaining that U.S. troops are stretched too thin and deployed too often.

“You’ve got a backdoor draft right now,” he said. “I’m going to add 40,000 active duty forces to our military.”

Members of the audience — voters who say they are leaning toward Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush but say they could be persuaded to switch — asked questions of both candidates.

The questions were reviewed beforehand by Mr. Gibson, but not by the candidates or their campaigns.

Mr. Bush, for the first time, admitted that he “wasn’t happy” about failing to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But he said Mr. Kerry also thought there were weapons when he voted to authorize going to war and has now switched positions.

“My opponent’s plans lead me to conclude that Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and the world would be more dangerous,” Mr. Bush said.

But Mr. Kerry said that was a distortion.

“Let me tell you straight up: I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq,” he said. adding that he believed Saddam was a threat and saying that he even wanted to give Mr. Clinton the power to use force against Iraq in 1998.

He said, though, that both before and after the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush has pushed allies away, pointing to a Defense Department memorandum that said reconstruction contracts funded by U.S. taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go to foreign companies.

“Now that’s not a good way to build support and reduce the risk for our troops and make America safer,” he said. “I’m going to get the training done for our troops. I’m going to get the training of Iraqis done faster. And I’m going to get our allies back to the table.”

The first debate drew more than 60 million viewers, and even the vice-presidential debate drew a strong audience, but both campaigns wondered whether a Friday night event would draw the same interest — especially when matched against Major League Baseball playoffs.

Along those lines, Mr. Gibson gave a rundown of the Boston Red Sox’ dramatic extra-innings win in the divisional playoffs yesterday, commenting, “I was worried that perhaps Senator Kerry’s home constituency would be underrepresented” in last night’s audience.

The two men will have their final debate on Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz.

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