Bush, Kerry bare knuckles in second debate
Candidates trade punches over taxes, jobs, health care, Iraq
ST. LOUIS, Missouri (CNN) -- President Bush came out swinging Friday night in the rematch with his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry.
Early in the town hall-format debate held at Washington University in St. Louis, the president was challenged over his decision to invade Iraq in the wake of a report that Saddam Hussein's regime had no weapons of mass destruction.
"I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons," Bush said. "But Saddam Hussein was a unique threat. And the world is better off without him in power. And my opponent's plans lead me to conclude that Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and the world would be more dangerous [if Kerry had been president]."
Kerry fired back, saying the president's policies have left Americans with a huge bill for the war in Iraq.
"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 on terror."
After Kerry accused him of going alone into Iraq, Bush interrupted the moderator, ABC's Charles Gibson, to demand that Kerry ask the British or Italian prime ministers if their participation was nonexistent.
Bush repeatedly told Kerry that when it came to his Senate record, "You can run, but you can't hide."
"I don't seen how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, if you change your mind because of politics," Bush said.
Kerry used the situation in Iraq to answer a question about him appearing wishy-washy.
"The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception," Kerry said before he sought to explain how his positions on the Patriot Act, education and job creation had not changed.
Kerry also charged that Bush has shortchanged homeland security in favor of tax cuts for the rich, and called the Iraq war a "catastrophic mistake."
"The world is more dangerous today because the president didn't make the right judgments," Kerry said. "So what does he do? He's trying to attack me. He wants you to believe that I can't be president."
Bush denied the draft would be revived and said that instead, U.S. troops would be repositioned around the world.
But Kerry said refusing to let National Guard and Reserve troops leave the service was a "back door draft."
Bush was much more forceful in his replies than he appeared during the first debate, where his performance was said to have been bumpy and tentative. He began several of his answers by taking a punch at Kerry. (Special Report: The debates)
In a reference to the sour faces he was said to have made during the previous debate, Bush responded to one of Kerry's statements by saying, ""That answer made me almost want to scowl."
The town hall format meant the two candidates took selected questions that were submitted from an audience of uncommitted voters.
After clashing over U.S. policies in Iraq, Bush and Kerry were questioned about health care, the environment and tax policies.
Bush denied he was blocking cheaper medicines from Canada from flowing into the United States and said he was just trying to ensure medications were safe.
Kerry accused the president of protecting only the pockets of the drug makers.
"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 and American bottles," Kerry said.
Kerry vowed he would not raise taxes but would roll back the cuts for wealthier Americans "to the level we were at with Bill Clinton, when people made a lot of money."
Bush shot back that the senator's plan would not just squeeze the rich.
"Do you realize, 900,000 small businesses will be taxed under his plan because most small businesses are Subchapter S corps or limited partnerships, and they pay tax at the individual income tax level?" Bush said.
Jobs were also an issue in the debate after a government report released Friday said that U.S. employers added 96,000 to their payrolls in September, while the unemployment rate stayed unchanged at 5.4 percent.
Bush said the answer was "less regulations if we want jobs here; legal reform if we want jobs here; and we've got to keep taxes low."
Kerry dismissed the president's labeling of him as a tax-and-spend liberal.
"The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around. I mean, "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," Kerry said.
Bush gave a new answer to a familiar question when he was asked what mistakes he has made in office. Previously, he said he couldn't think of any right off the top of head. But this time he was prepared.
"I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV."
But, he said several times, the decision to invade Iraq was not a mistake.
Going into the debate, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed the two candidates in a dead heat, with each polling at 49 percent among likely voters just 25 days before the election. (Special Report: America Votes 2004, Poll Tracker)
After the contest, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 515 registered voters who watched the second debate found that the two were neck-and-neck in the question of who did the better job in the face-off.
Bush picked up a few more points on the questions of which candidate could better handle Iraq and terrorism. But respondents were evenly split over who could best handle economic issues.
Because the poll questioned only people who watched the debate, its results do not statistically represent the views of all Americans.
Bush and Kerry will meet for their third and final debate Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona.