Earmarked by testy comebacks and sharp criticism, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry faced off in an intense debate that provided a stark contrast to divisive topics such as the war in Iraq, taxes, stem cell research and abortion.
Bush dove into a military report to justify the war in Iraq. Authored by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, one of the key findings in the report stated Saddam Hussein wanted to preserve the capability for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
“(Going to Iraq) was the right decision,” Bush said. “The Duelfer report confirmed that decision today … And the biggest threat facing America is terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.”
However, Kerry moved the spotlight to the fact Saddam possessed no WMD during the time of the U.S. invasion, according to the same report. Kerry further stressed Bush did not go to war as a last resort, saying it was “a catastrophic mistake” and that he rushed to Iraq “without a plan to win the peace.”
When asked about maintaining a military presence in Iraq, the president was quick to clear draft rumors, which circulated the Internet.
“We’re not going to have a draft so long as I am the president,” Bush said.
But when Kerry pointed out the president went to war unilaterally instead of building alliances, Bush interjected moderator Charles Gibson’s prompt to a new question.
“I’ve got to answer this,” Bush said.
“You tell Tony Blair we’re going alone,” he said to Kerry.
The president also criticized Kerry for complaining about inadequate military equipment such as the 10,000 unarmored Humvees American troops use in Iraq.
Said Bush: “He voted against the $87 billion supplemental I sent to the Congress and then issued one of the most amazing quotes in political history: ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.'”
The Democratic challenger, nonetheless, gave a chiding remark of his own with talks about saving money for the middle class.
“We did something that you don’t know how to do: We balanced the budget,” Kerry said to Bush about healthcare reform. “And we paid down the debt of our nation for two years in a row.”
In order to help Americans who are earning less than $200,000 a year, Kerry promised not to raise taxes, which he deemed a better plan than Bush’s tax cut that saved the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans $89 billion last year.
The president countered his pledge, stating Kerry voted 98 times to raise taxes in the past.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Bush said. “I mean, these aren’t make-up figures.”
Differences sharpened when the Democrat addressed the issue of curing diseases such as Parkinson’s by using embryonic stem cells. Provided embryonic stem cell research is ethically guided for cures, he said it is the nature of the human spirit to seek out that option.
“I think it is respecting life to reach for that cure,” Kerry said. “I think it is respecting life to do it in an ethical way.”
Although Bush approved federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, he cautioned to be careful in balancing ethics and science.
“Embryonic stem-cell research requires the destruction of life to create a stem cell,” he said. “To destroy life to save life is one of the real ethical dilemmas that we face.”
Bush even had stronger convictions about abortion.
“I signed the ban on partial-birth abortion,” he said. “It’s a brutal practice. It’s one way to help reduce abortions. My opponent voted against the ban.
“I think there ought to be parental notification laws. (Kerry’s) against them.”
In turn, Kerry explained a scenario as to why he was opposed to such laws.
“I’m not going to require a 16- or 17-year-old kid who’s been raped by her father and who’s pregnant to have to notify her father,” Kerry said.
Kerry also said he can’t take what is an article of faith for himself and legislate it for someone who does not share that same belief.
After the second debate came to a close last Friday, polls still declared it a tight race. An ABC poll revealed 44 percent felt Kerry won, whereas 41 percent felt Bush won with a margin error of 3 percentage points. A CNN/USA Today/Gallop Poll stated 47 and 45 percent, respectively, with plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Verbal sparring between the two continued outside of Washington University, when Bush ridiculed his opponent by telling his supporters Kerry “must think we’ve been on another planet” at the time of the debate. Meanwhile, Kerry told his supporters in Ohio “the president couldn’t even name one mistake,” when he was asked to specify three.
Both presidential candidates campaign in swing states as each awaits the third and final debate, which airs 6 p.m. Wednesday.