TEMPE, Ariz. — President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, squabbled at their third and final debate Wednesday night over congressional votes and whether they had kept their promises, but from the flying insults emerged serious and sharp differences over jobs, health care and thorny social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
The two men were supposed to talk exclusively about domestic issues in the 90-minute debate at Arizona State University, but first they skirmished over who would do a better job hunting down terrorists overseas.
Kerry promised that America would one day be as safe as it was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but only if what he called the mistakes of the Bush administration were corrected.
Kerry slammed the administration for failing to secure America’s ports and fully staff America’s firehouses. He said he was the better choice to do that. He said Bush “regrettably rushed us into war,” adding that the president had “pushed alliances away, and as a result America is not bearing this enormous burden where safe is not as safe as we ought to be.”
Bush agreed that “we can be safe and secure” if Americans gave him the chance to complete his work trying to “hunt down the terrorists” around the world.
“My opponent just this weekend talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling,” he said. “I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous.”
Bush also objected when Kerry quoted him as saying he did not think much about Osama bin Laden and was not all that concerned about him.
“I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden,” Bush said. “It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.”
In fact, Bush said almost exactly that in March 2002, speaking of bin Laden: “I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run.” He described bin Laden at the time as “marginalized” and said, “I just don’t spend that much time on him.”
Paying for health care
Only then did they turn to domestic issues.
Kerry said 5 million people had lost their health care in the last four years and accused Bush of “turning his back on the wellness of America.”
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Although Kerry said, “I have a plan to cover all Americans,” even his campaign does not contend that his proposal would eliminate the ranks of the uninsured. Independent analysts have said say full implementation of Kerry’s plan would extend coverage to about 25 million of the nearly 45 million uninsured.
On the other hand, analysts have rejected Bush’s characterization of Kerry’s plan as a government takeover, saying it would not reduce choice or increase government control.
That did not stop Bush from declaring that Kerry’s proposal would cost the government $7,700 per family. “If every family in America signed up it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years,” he said. “It’s an empty promise. It’s called bait-and-switch.”
The candidates also squabbled over how often Kerry had voted for tax cuts and increases. Both cited figures into the hundreds, but both men were indulging in the creativity common to campaigns in how they defined votes.
Republicans include as tax increases any vote by Kerry to cut taxes by less than they wanted, while Democrats count procedural votes and list individual items in omnibus bills as separate tax cuts.
“Anybody can play with those votes; everybody knows that,” Kerry said, to which Bush replied, “Senator, no one’s playing with your votes.”
Third debate crucial
The debate came less than three weeks before voters are to pick the next president. With poll after poll showing the country divided between the two candidates, there was no room for error.
A new Reuters/Zogby released Wednesday showed Bush and Kerry tied at 45 percent. The poll, which was conducted Saturday through Monday, reported a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.
Bush mounted a strong attack on Kerry’s Senate record Wednesday night, saying supported higher taxes, greater spending and a government-run health care plan.
“There’s a mainstream of American politics, and you sit on the far left bank,” the president said. “Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”
Schieffer, meanwhile, specifically challenged Kerry to say how he would pay for his domestic proposals.
Kerry repeated that he would raise taxes on those making more than $200,000 while providing targeted tax breaks to lower-income earners. He said Wednesday night that he would make up the rest by “reinstating what President Bush took away, which is called pay-as-you-go.”
“Well, his rhetoric doesn’t match his record,” Bush said, saying Kerry voted 277 times to waive caps on federal spending.
“I’ll tell you what pay-go means when you’re a senator from Massachusets,” Bush said. “You pay, and he goes spending.”
Kerry replied that gasoline, drug and food prices had skyrocketed while workers’ take-home pay had fallen on Bush’s watch.
“Being lectured to by the president on fiscal sanity is kind of like being lectured to by Tony Soprano on law and order,” he said.
Bush dodged a bit when asked whether he thought the minimum wage should be raised. Kerry said emphatically that he favored raising it.
Referring to the Republican senator from Kentucky, Bush said he supported “Mitch McConnell’s bill” to raise the minimum wage, without explanation. But as a candidate four years ago, Bush said he favored raising a minimum wage only if individual states were essentially allowed to opt out, excluding workers within their borders.
Wide gaps on Social Security
Asked about how the government should fix the Social Security system, which is running out of money, Bush acknowledged that there was a problem but promised senior citizens, “You’re going to get your checks.”
He said Social Security would be a “vital issue in my second administration” and said he would reach across the aisle to work with Democrats as well as Republicans to find a solution. He proposed allowing younger adults to take some of their money out of Social Security and put it into private accounts.
Kerry called the president’s proposal “a disaster” and said he would not privatize Social Security or cut benefits.
“We will save Social Security,” Kerry promised, but he did not say how even after Schieffer interjected with a follow-up.
Kerry said instead that he helped negotiate the 1996 agreement to preserve Social Security funding but that Bush’s tax cuts had sabotaged the plan. He said that his economic proposals would promote enough economic growth to expand Social Security revenues and if they did not, he would then convene a panel of experts to examine the problem.
Bush jumped on Kerry’s answer, noting, “I didn’t hear a plan.”
Clashes over values issues
Kerry, who was criticized for what opponents said was his murky defense of legal abortion in the second debate, defended his position Wednesday, repeating that while he opposed abortion, he did not believe he could impose his beliefs on others.
“I believe the decision is a choice between the woman, her doctor and God,” said Kerry, who was the subject of a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s New York Times in which a longtime ally, former Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, said Kerry should not impose a “litmus test” on his judicial nominees.
Bush said he respected the opinions of people who supported legal abortion, but he said he believed “in a culture of life.” Kerry, he said, was “out of the mainstream” on abortion.
That prompted Schieffer to ask Bush specifically whether he favored overturning Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Bush did not answer, saying instead, “I would not have a litmus test for judges.”
Kerry noted that Bush did not answer Schieffer’s question. “I would not appoint a judge to the court who is going to overturn a constitutional right ... and I believe that choice is a constitutional right,” he said.
On another social issue that divides Americans across religious lines, both men said marriage should be preserved for heterosexual couples, but they disagreed when Schieffer asked whether they believed homosexuality was a person’s choice.
“I don't know,” Bush said simply, while Kerry, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary, said it was not a choice. “We're all God’s children,” he said.
The reference to Mary Cheney infuriated the vice president’s wife, Lynne, who slammed Kerry while speaking to supporters in Pittsburgh. “This is not a good man. This is not a good man,” Lynne Cheney said. “This is coming from an indignant mom. What a cheap and tawdry political trick.”
The candidates leave after the debate for a furious stretch of campaigning. Bush heads to Nevada, Iowa and Florida, and Kerry travels to Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson. MSNBC-TV’s Priya David in Pittsburgh and The Associated Press contributed to this report.