Here's a quick look at where Sen. John Kerry and President Bush stand on the central issues in the race for the White House.
In their own words
Kerry: "I'm running for President to make the country we love safer, stronger, and more secure. I'm asking every American to be a Citizen Soldier again committed to leaving no American behind."
Bush: “My campaign is going to take a hopeful and optimistic message to the American people. I hope you will show your support by taking action in your community. Vice President Cheney and I are focused on the nation's top priorities -- strengthening the economy, protecting the homeland, and winning the war on terror. We will continue to earn the confidence of the American people by working to keep this nation prosperous, strong and secure.”
Bush: Opposition to abortion (except in very narrow cases of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life is endangered) is at the core of Bush’s "right-to-life" platform. Opposes funding international organizations involved in abortion. Opposes intact dilation and extraction, known by opponents as "partial-birth abortion," which he calls a "brutal and violent practice." Opposes school-based clinics that provide referrals or counseling for contraception and abortion. Supports legislation to extend 14th Amendment protections to unborn children.
Kerry: Supports legal abortion and says he would not pick Supreme Court nominees justices who disagreed. Kerry voted against measures to outlaw intact dilation and extraction, and he has endorsed family planning and health insurance plans that provide abortion counseling and contraceptive coverage.
Bush: Approved record deficits in a time of recession, war, terrorism and tax cuts. Budget in surplus when Bush took office; $521 billion deficit is projected this year. The president's budget plan for 2005 says annual deficits can be cut by half in five years. Bush proposes that Congress limit discretionary spending in programs outside defense and homeland security to a 0.5 percent increase next year.
Kerry: Says he would cut deficit by half, at least, in first term, in part through repeal of Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans.
Bush: The president oversaw 152 executions as governor of Texas, calling it an effective deterrent. "I don’t think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge," he said during the 2000 campaign. "I don’t think that’s right. I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people’s lives."
Kerry: Kerry is the first major-party nominee for president to oppose the death penalty since Michael Dukakis in 1988. He opposes all executions except in extreme instances of terrorism, saying they are racially biased and flawed in their application. Kerry has sponsored legislation to impose a moratorium on federal executions.
Bush: Has not detailed an economic program for the next four years but has made a priority out of extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and make them permanent to ensure continued economic growth. He also has discussed the need for broad reform to simplify the federal income tax structure. Bush has called for reforms to cut down on "junk and frivolous" lawsuits which are "driving up the cost of doing business in America," according to the Republican platform. In a six-point plan unveiled last year, he called for streamlining of business regulations and reporting requirements and said he would continue working to open new foreign markets through free-trade agreements. To ease the business burden of health care costs, Bush proposes boosting the tax benefits associated with medical savings accounts and allowing small businesses to pool their resources to get better deals in insurance. Bush's target is to cut the deficit in half within five years as a percentage of gross domestic product. The administration "will continue to work with Congress to study the various minimum wage proposals," according to the campaign Web site.
Kerry: Has linked jobs and health care as the centerpiece of his economic package. And he has promised to cut the federal budget deficit in half over four years, restoring fiscal discipline through "pay-as-you-go" financing for new programs.Kerry says he would create 10 million jobs in four years, an aggressive but not implausible target. As an incentive he would offer an employer tax credit for new jobs created in manufacturing and certain other businesses. The tax credit would be worth about $3,000 for a job paying $40,000 a year. Kerry is proposing tax credits to help small and midsized businesses pay for employee health care, which has been blamed for slow job growth. Kerry says he would create U.S. jobs by ending a tax benefit enjoyed by American companies with operations overseas. And he would offer a onetime tax break for companies that repatriate some of the $600 billion in U.S. profits being held abroad. Kerry would pay for his proposals by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans earning more than $200,000 a year, reversing Bush-era reductions. The estate tax would be restored, but exemptions would be raised from previous levels to $4 million per couple and $10 million for a family-owned business or farm. Kerry would lower the top corporate tax rate from 35 to 33.25 percent. Kerry also would reverse recent changes in overtime regulations and support legislation raising the federal minimum wage to $7 an hour by 2007 from the current $5.15.
Bush: Championed a bipartisan overhaul of elementary and secondary education that toughened standards for teachers, schools and student achievement. Federal spending on education has jumped nearly 50 percent since Bush took office.
Kerry: Would establish $3.2 billion community service plan for high school students that would qualify them for the equivalent of their states’ four-year public college tuition if they perform two years of national service. Provide a tax credit for every year of college on the first $4,000 paid in tuition. Credit would provide 100 percent of the first $1,000 and 50 percent on the rest. Opposes private-school vouchers. Backed Bush overhaul but says too much emphasis is placed on tests for measuring student achievement; additional factors, such as attendance and parental satisfaction, should be considered.
Bush: Backs protections from lawsuits for makers of MTBE, a fuel additive linked to cancer, which has been a key sticking point blocking passage of a comprehensive energy bill. Supports oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which would add to domestic production but not enough to replace imports. Opposes using the 700 million barrels of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to lower oil prices, saying those reserves should be used only in the event of a supply disruption. Opposes raising mileage requirements (now at 22 mpg) on carmakers. Opposes raising the gasoline tax to curb consumption. Has increased research funding for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, clean coal research, and nuclear and fusion power research. Supports modernizing the national electric grid to avoid blackouts.
Kerry: Opposes legal protections for makers of MTBE. Opposes opening ANWR to oil drilling. Supports using oil from the SPR to help lower prices. Proposed a $5,000 incentives for consumers who buy "clean energy" vehicles. Favors raising car mileage requirements to 36 mpg by 2015. Opposes raising the gasoline tax to curb consumption. Supports a goal of meeting 20 percent of the demand for motor fuel with ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogen by 2010. Also wants to overhaul the national electric grid with new technologies to prevent blackouts. Wants to invest $10 billion over the next decade to develop cleaner and more efficient coal-fired power plants.
Bush: Favors more logging of federal forests to prevent fires. Favors a gradual cap on mercury emissions. Favors storing the nation’s nuclear waste in Nevada. Favors moving towards a non-polluting, hydrogen economy. Withdrew the United States from U.N.-backed climate change treaty, saying it was unfair. The Sierra Club calls Bush's environmental record the worst of any president. Bush says local and state governments often can do a better job than federal regulators.
Kerry: Favors a strong federal role to provide uniform environmental protections. Opposes logging in remote areas to prevent fires, would focus on clearing brush around communities. Favors strict cap on mercury emissions sooner. Favors keeping nuclear waste at reactors for now. Favors moving toward a non-polluting, hydrogen economy. Voted against U.N.-backed climate change treaty but favors continuing talks. Kerry has the highest congressional ratings from the League of Conservation Voters.
Bush: After straining relations with major European allies and the United Nations over war in Iraq, Bush has shifted his foreign policy focus to the spread of democracy by pushing a Greater Middle East Initiative that would aim to resolve the region’s political, economic and social problems through democratic reform. The president, criticized for the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is also pursuing a policy that seeks to unravel the black market in nuclear components and block programs in North Korea and Iran, countries he has labeled an “axis of evil” along with prewar Iraq.
Kerry: While insisting he would never cede U.S. security to any other nation and would use force when required, Kerry envisions “a new era of alliances” to replace what he sees as the White House’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. He has pledged to restore diplomacy as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, treat the United Nations as a “full partner” and pursue collective security arrangements. His inner circle of foreign policy advisers features prominent Democratic veterans, including some figures from the Clinton days.
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Gay and lesbian issues
Bush: Has called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, saying there must be one uniform national standard immune to judicial reversal. He has not taken a firm position on civil unions, saying he would leave the issue up to the states. Although he endorses the view that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service, Bush maintained former President Bill Clinton’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy allowing gays and lesbians to serve in military if they are not open.
Kerry: Opposes same-sex marriages but also opposes a constitutional amendment to ban them. Supports recognition of civil unions to extend all federal benefits to same-sex couples. Kerry sponsored the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which bans job discrimination against homosexuals. Supports including gays and lesbians in the protections of the Federal Hate Crimes Law. Supports repealing the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Bush: Favors granting gun makers immunity from civil lawsuits, but that measure failed in the Senate. Has said he supports extending ban on assault-type weapons that expires in September and requiring background checks at gun shows, but has backed delays in acting on those steps. Criticized Clinton for weak enforcement of existing gun laws, but prosecution of people who lie on background checks has continued to lag.
Kerry: Supports extending ban on assault-type weapons and requiring background checks at gun shows. Opposes granting immunity to gun makers.
Bush: Number of Americans without health insurance has risen in his presidency, reaching 43.6 million in 2002, up from 41.2 million in 2001 and 39.8 million in 2000, according to Census Bureau. Has won passage of prescription drug benefit for older Americans that will subsidize costs for low-income patients and encourage private insurance companies to offer coverage for the elderly willing to opt out of traditional Medicare. Cost of drug benefit and other Medicare changes now estimated at $534 billion over 10 years, up from $395 billion when changes were debated. New tax-free medical savings accounts can be opened by people under 65 who meet certain conditions.
Kerry: Expand existing insurance system for federal employees to private citizens through tax credits and subsidies. Unemployed would get 75 percent tax credit to help pay for insurance. Tax credits for small businesses and their employees for health insurance. People aged 55 to 64 could buy into federal employees’ health plan at affordable price. Government would help companies and insurers pay an employee’s catastrophic medical costs if the firms would agree to hold down premiums. Federal support to expand access to state-administered health insurance for children. Overall costs estimated by outside analyst at $895 billion over 10 years, to cover 27 million more people. Also, require mandatory financing for veterans health care.
Bush: Calls homeland security his “most important job” and touts creation of Department of Homeland Security, which combined 22 federal agencies, as primary achievement. Bush supports all provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act and favors expansion of the law as it comes up for renewal. Bush supports the 9/11 Commission recommendation to create a so-called “Intelligence Czar.” In August, he signed an executive order creating the framework for that position, which needs congressional approval for full implementation. Bush also points to billions of dollars budgeted and spent to bolster security in sectors from aviation to transportation to ports and critical infrastructure. Bush revamped the FBI’s mission with a focus on domestic terrorism and has pushed for better integration of the intelligence community. Bush pushed for BioWatch program, a multi-billion dollar plan to protect against biological and chemical terrorism threats. Bush got the FDA to kick start a moribund food safety inspection program.
Kerry: Kerry has made fulfilling the 9/11 Commission’s anti-terrorism blueprint a top priority, vowing to “immediately implement” its recommendations if elected. Kerry has a five-point plan for improving homeland security: improving country’s ability to track down terrorists by overhauling the intelligence community and how these agencies interact; plug security holes at airports, seaports and borders; assess and resolve vulnerabilities within critical infrastructure sectors, such as energy, chemical and mass transportation; provide better support to first responders such as police, medical and fire department personnel; and revamp the Patriot Act to guard against what he sees as infringements on civil liberties. Kerry also proposes to reorganize the way the country responds to nationwide bioterror threats by putting a single person in charge of national anti-bioterrorism efforts. Kerry wants first responders to be held to a set of national benchmarks for preparedness. He wants creation of a “new community defense service” staffed by citizens serving as a 21st century neighborhood watch.
Bush: Proposes granting legal status to millions of illegal workers as well as people outside the United States who line up jobs in America. Plan would give temporary legal status and expand the current program for highly skilled foreign workers and farm labor to other sectors of the economy where jobs are not being filled by Americans. Opposes giving illegal immigrants an “automatic path to citizenship.”
Kerry: People who have been in the United States at least five years, paid taxes and “stayed out of trouble ought to be able to translate into an American citizen immediately.”
Bush: Authorized by Congress, Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq, calling the Saddam Hussein regime a threat to America's security. The president oversaw a swift military victory followed by a violent aftermath in which the death count for U.S. soldiers topped 1,000 in September. Won congressional approval of $87 billion for continued military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan and pushed plan for interim government to run country until it is replaced following national elections scheduled for January.
Kerry: Voted to give Bush authority to wage war. Voted against $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan.Although he criticized Bush for striking Iraq based on faulty intelligence, Kerry said in August he still would have voted to authorize the war even had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But Kerry now makes a distinction between granting a president war-making authority as a member of the Senate and, as commander in chief, actually taking that fateful step, which he says Bush should not have done. He has a four-point plant to deal with post-war Iraq but no deadline for U.S. troops to be withdrawn.
Bush: The president is an evangelical United Methodist who says he has been "born again," a theology that undergirds many of his basic policy positions. He says he regularly seeks guidance from God and opposes movements to remove religion from public life.
Kerry: Under pressure from Catholic leaders because of his support for legal abortion, Kerry has said it is important to stand up for separation of church and state. He says his decisions as president would be guided by his "obligation to all the people of our country and to the Constitution of the United States." His campaign’s religion adviser, the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a California atheist who challenged the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Bush: Give younger workers the option of putting part of their payroll tax into personal retirement accounts, giving them a chance to make a higher return on that investment in return for smaller Social Security benefits.
Kerry: Opposes partial privatization of Social Security. Would require companies switching to cheaper lump-sum pension plans to offer retiring workers the choice of staying with traditional company pension.
Bush: Is an avowed free trader, has embarked on a series of trade agreements with countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. But his administration has also faced charges of protectionism over steel tariffs that the World Trade Organization ruled illegal, and its reluctance to trim import barriers that protect U.S. sugar, dairy and beef industries.
Kerry: Has promised a 120-day review of all existing U.S. trade agreements upon taking office, and favors using the World Trade Organization to challenge China’s currency practices. He also has pressed for stronger labor and environmental language than Bush has required in growing collection of bilateral free trade agreements with countries around the world.
MSNBC's Alex Johnson, Miguel Llanos, John Schoen, Brock Meeks and Marty Wolk, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.