ST. LOUIS – A polite but persistent group of Americans grilled President Bush and Sen. John Kerry at a televised town-hall meeting Friday night, challenging Bush on his Iraq policy and confronting Kerry with complaints that he’s “wishy-washy.”
The lively 90-minute encounter at Washington University in St. Louis featured some sharp exchanges between the two candidates, who at times addressed each other with barely concealed scorn. But there were no moments of high drama, no embarrassing gaffes and not much humor; instead it was a serious debate on a host of domestic and foreign-policy issues.
While the two presidential candidates spent much of the debate renewing their argument over the war in Iraq, they also sparred over reviving the draft, re-importing less expensive U.S.-made drugs from Canada, health care, taxes, the deficit, the environment and abortion.
Kerry set the tone with his first response by accusing the president of turning his campaign into a “weapon of mass deception” through what he said were Bush’s mischaracterizations of Kerry’s positions.
A short time later, Kerry confronted Bush with weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s findings that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and lacked the capability to produce them quickly. Kerry said Duelfer’s report on Wednesday showed that the war in Iraq was unnecessary.
“He didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President,” Kerry said, glaring at Bush. “And if we’d have 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.
“The world is more dangerous today because the president didn’t make the right judgments.”
“First of all,” Bush said, “we didn’t find out he didn’t have weapons till we got there. … And secondly, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding to say that the war on terror is only Osama bin Laden. The war on terror is to make sure that these terrorist organizations do not end up with weapons of mass destruction.”
The audience was as tough as the candidates, though not as heated. A woman named Cheryl told Kerry that many of her friends, family members and co-workers think he’s too “wishy-washy” to be president.
Kerry said Bush’s campaign ads have presented a false image of him as a waffler. Kerry said he’s been consistent on at least three issues that Bush uses against him: the anti-terror Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind education bill and the war in Iraq. In all three cases, Kerry said he hasn’t backed away from his “yes” votes, but he believes that Bush has mishandled the implementation of the two laws and the war.
One man asked Bush about rumors that the government might revive a military draft.
“We’re not going to have a draft – period. The all-volunteer Army works,” Bush said emphatically. “Forget all that talk about a draft. We’re not going to have a draft as long as I am president.”
Kerry said Bush is presiding over a “back-door draft” through his policies of extending tours of duty and calling up reservists and National Guardsmen for lengthy combat duty.
Another questioner pressed Kerry to pledge that he wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-class families.
“Absolutely. Yes … I am not going to raise taxes,” he said, looking directly into the camera for emphasis. But Kerry acknowledged that he would repeal Bush-backed tax cuts for Americans earning more than $200,000 a year.
“I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me and Charlie, I’m sorry, you too,” Kerry said, referring to Charles Gibson, the debate moderator and one of the hosts of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
That was one of the few light moments in a fast-paced debate that covered a host of domestic and foreign issues. The candidates squared off before an audience of more than 100 St. Louis-area voters that pollsters had identified as “soft” supporters, meaning that they were leaning toward Bush or Kerry but could still change their minds.
Bush and Kerry paced in front of the audience with handheld wireless microphones, then retreated to their chairs between responses.
The format was expected to favor Bush, who’s most comfortable in less formal settings, but Kerry was at least equally at ease. The questioners, some with quavering voices, pressed Bush to defend his record.
The president refused to directly answer a question about his choice for the Supreme Court if there were a vacancy.
“I’m not telling,” he said, adding that he hasn’t made a decision but would favor a “strict constructionist” in interpreting the Constitution.
One of the sharpest contrasts came on abortion, when a woman asked Kerry to justify use of tax dollars to fund abortions for poor women.
Kerry said withholding the money would deny poor women a constitutional right.
“I’m a Catholic,” Kerry said. “But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith. … As a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation.”
“I’m trying to decipher that,” Bush said when Kerry finished. “My answer is we’re not going to spend federal taxpayers’ money on abortion.”
Kerry insisted that such questions are often not so simple. He said he favors parental notification for teens seeking abortions, but that there must be exceptions: “I’m not going to have a 16-year-old kid who’s been raped by her father have to notify her father. … It’s never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe.”
The candidates also clashed on health care. Bush disputed a questioner’s assertion that he had blocked the re-importation of less-expensive prescription drugs from Canada, saying a final decision will come in December.
“I want to make sure they’re safe. When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn’t kill you,” Bush said. “Now, it may very well be here in December you hear me say I think there’s a safe way to do it.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the president just didn’t level with you,” Kerry said when his turn came. “He did block it.”
Kerry bristled when Bush called his health care proposal a government-run plan that would ruin the nation’s health care system.
“That’s what liberals do,” Bush said. “They create government-sponsored health care.”
“The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around,” Kerry said. “It is not a government takeover. … The government has nothing to do with it.”
Kerry’s plan would expand health-care coverage to an estimated 27 million Americans, mainly by relaxing the income requirements for Medicaid and a state-run health care program for poor children. He also would provide government subsidies to help small businesses provide private health insurance to workers and have the government cover “catastrophic” insurance costs for businesses.
Bush’s alternative would expand coverage to about 7 million Americans by offering tax credits to make private insurance more affordable.
On the environment, Bush claimed to have been a “good steward” of America’s resources. Kerry responded by saying he didn’t think Bush was “living in the world of reality.” Kerry conceded that the Kyoto Treaty to curb global warming was flawed, but charged that “this president didn’t try to fix it, he just declared it dead … and we walked away from the work of 160 nations over 10 years … The president’s done nothing to fix it. I will.”
In the final question, a woman asked Bush to list three mistakes he has made as president. He said he made some bad appointments, but otherwise dodged the question.
On the big questions of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush said: “I’ll stand by those decisions because I think they’re right.”
The debate occurred as polls show the race has tightened into a virtual tie. Whether significant votes were swayed by either man’s performance can’t be known until opinions firm over several days and new surveys are taken, but one focus group of 12 swing voters in Cleveland organized by pollster John Zogby may offer clues to public reaction.
Of the 12 voters, seven leaned toward Kerry as the debate began and stayed with him. Only one favored Bush before the debate, but four backed the president after it ended, primarily on his strength as commander in chief and his defense of the war in Iraq. One voter remained undecided.