ST. LOUIS — Committing himself to going on the offensive in the last month of the campaign, President Bush tore into Sen. John Kerry during the second presidential debate Friday night, saying he could understand why people thought the Democratic challenger “changes positions a lot, because he does.” Kerry answered Bush’s attacks calmly but sternly, accusing Bush of “choosing a tax cut over homeland security” and “going it alone in Iraq.”
Unlike during the first debate, when the candidates were stationed almost motionless behind lecterns, Bush and Kerry were free Friday night to walk the stage at Washington University. Bush, clearly energized by the opportunity to interact with the audience, delivered most of his consistently cutting remarks while pacing the edge of the stage as Kerry sat quietly behind him.
When Kerry’s time came to talk, the senator stood his ground and accused Bush of making the world more dangerous “because the president didn’t make the right judgments.”
Aides to both candidates had predicted that Bush would be tougher in the second contest after analysts judged that Kerry had won the first debate eight days ago more or less decisively. Bush’s campaign was buoyed by the aggressive performance of Vice President Dick Cheney in his debate this week against Sen. John Edwards, and Bush followed suit by sharpening his criticism of Kerry in stump speeches.
Bush set the tone immediately Friday night, losing no time in going on the attack in response to Kerry’s answer to why people thought he was “wishy-washy.” Kerry detailed several issues on which he said he agreed with the president in principle, including education reform and tax policy, but he said he thought Bush had gone about implementing them wrongly, leading people to think he was unclear.
“I have a plan to put people back to work,” Kerry said. “That’s not wishy-washy.”
Bush rejected the explanation, saying twice in less than a minute that he could “understand why people think he changes positions, because he does.”
“I don’t see how you can lead this country in a time of war, in a time of uncertainty, when you change your position because of politics,” Bush said.
Second of three debates
For the second time in eight days, Bush and Kerry were facing off for 90 minutes before tens of millions of Americans. Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, had a slight lead in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll, an advantage that began taking hold after the first debate last week .
This time the setup was different. Uncommitted voters chosen by the Gallup Organization wrote out questions in advance, and 17 addressed the candidates in a town hall-style format.
The first meeting was devoted to foreign policy, which Bush’s campaign had thought would yield his strongest performance, but advisers privately acknowledged that the president hurt himself by grimacing and fidgeting during Kerry’s answers and by failing to seize upon openings.
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Bush projected much more confidence Friday night, even joking about his performance in the first debate. After one of Kerry’s points, he quipped, “That answer almost made me want to scowl.”
Once, Bush jumped from his stool in his eagerness to speak and started a rebuttal on Iraq as Kerry was still finishing his answer.
At another point, he raised his voice almost to a shout as he rejected rumors that he would have to reinstate the military draft to compensate for the stretching of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re not going to have a draft, period,” the president declared.Video: Clinton: Kerry the clear winner
Yet to be answered was whether Bush’s aggressive, animated style was effective or a damaging extension of the first debate.
Bush “seemed wound a bit too tight. He was a little like Nixon — sort of jumping out of his suit,” David Niven, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, told The Associated immediately afterward. “He looked bad on the TV close-ups.”
But Marc Racicot, national chairman of the Bush campaign, said: “President Bush was on the offensive tonight against John Kerry’s tired, political rhetoric. The president was in command of the issues, the facts and the stage and clearly won on style and substance.”
‘Tell Tony Blair’
Bush strongly defended his invasion of Iraq in the face of Kerry’s contention that he had made the world more dangerous “because the president didn’t make the right judgments.”
“The military’s job is to win the war,” Kerry said. “The president’s job is to win the peace.”
Bush acknowledged that he “wasn’t happy when we found there weren’t weapons” of mass destruction in Iraq. But he insisted that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed a unique threat and that the world was safer without him in power.Video: Hughes: Bush can keep us safe
The president reacted especially indignantly when Kerry said he was “going it alone” in Iraq.
Cutting off the moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” who sought to ask him a follow-up, Bush said, “I've got to answer this,” demanding: “Tell Tony Blair we’re going it alone! Tell Tony Blair [of Britain] we’re going it alone! Tell Silvio Berlusconi [of Italy] we’re going alone! Tell Aleksandr Kwasniewski of Poland we’re going it alone!”
Refusing to be baited, Kerry coolly replied, “Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining," asserting that eight nations were pulling their troops from post-war Iraq.
Economy seen as crucial topic
Analysts had predicted that the economy would be just as hot a button Friday night as the war. New unemployment figures, the last before the election, showed Bush as the first president since the Depression to have the nation lose jobs during his term.
The president, who has frequently been lampooned for tripping over his words, appeared willing to risk slip-ups in his determination to come across as energetic and engaged in the economic struggles of many Americans. At one point, he stumbled and referred to his opponent as “Senator Kennedy,” while at another, he mentioned “rumors on the Internets.”
But he came prepared with a raft of facts and figures on discretionary versus non-discretionary spending, Medicare payments, the history of the stock market and alternative fuels policy, which he rattled off with aplomb. It was a striking contrast from the sometimes-halting, seemingly annoyed performance he gave eight days ago.
And over and over again, he dismissed Kerry as an absentee senator, a flip-flopper, a weak leader and a political opportunist.
When Kerry said he supported caps on doctors’ liability for medical malpractice, the president retorted, “Well, you should have showed up in the Senate and voted for it.”
“And he put a trial lawyer on the ticket,” Bush said, in a swipe at Edwards, who made his fortune as a private lawyer in high-profile medical malpractice cases.
Kerry’s response was that “the president’s just trying to scare everybody here.”
Kerry mostly avoided letting himself be rattled, but he did lash back from time to time. When Bush said the environment was cleaner since he took office, Kerry snapped, “Boy, to listen to that — the president, I don’t think, is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment.”
‘You can run, but you can’t hide’
Tax cuts were a particular flashpoint. Kerry rejected Bush’s accusation that he would raise taxes by flatly promising that he would not raise taxes on people making less than $200,000 a year.
“He’s just not credible,” Bush replied.
“Of course he’s going to raise your taxes,” the president said. “There’s a difference between what he’s promised and what he can raise” in revenue to cut the deficit in half as promised. “He’s got a record. He’s been there for 20 years. You can run, but you can’t hide.”
The audience chosen to question the candidates was divided evenly between “soft” Bush and Kerry supporters — prospective voters who were leaning but were open to changing their minds — in addition to a few who said they were genuinely undecided, about 10 percent of the 140 audience members.
The audience gave the candidates a wide range of issues to spar over, and they disagreed sharply on virtually all of them:
- Asked why he had blocked imports of cheaper drugs from Canada, Bush replied: “I haven’t yet. I just want to make sure they’re safe.” He said there were other ways to make drugs less expensive, such as getting generic drugs to the market more quickly. He also said prescription drug cards could lower costs.
Kerry responded that Bush, at a debate four years ago, said he would allow imports from Canada. “The president just didn’t level with you,” he charged.
- On homeland security, Kerry charged that “we have bridges and tunnels that aren’t being secured, chemical plants, nuclear plants that aren’t secured, hospitals that are overcrowded with their emergency rooms. If we had a disaster today, could they handle it? This president chose a tax cut over homeland security. Wrong choice.”
Bush replied, “That’s an odd thing to say, since we’ve tripled the homeland security budget from $10 billion to $30 billion. ... My opponent’s right: We need good intelligence. It’s also a curious thing for him to say since right after 1993 he voted to cut the intelligence budget by $7.5 billion.”
- Kerry said he would support federal funding for abortions because he could not deny a poor woman a constitutionally protected right that someone else could afford. Bush said he was “not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion.”
One rare point of agreement was on Supreme Court nominations.
Asked whom he would nominate if a vacancy came open in his second term, Bush said: “I’m not telling you. I really haven’t picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.”
Turning serious, he said he would not pick judges who believed that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because it included the words “under God.” But overall, he said, he believed it was “legislators [who] make the law. Judges interpret the Constitution.”
Kerry’s answer was almost an echo. “I want to make sure we have judges who interpret the Constitution of the United States according to the law,” he said.
The third and final debate will be Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz., with the focus on domestic issues.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson. NBC’s Javier Morgado and The Associated Press contributed to this report.