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Debate a ‘great clash’ despite candidates’ artful dodges, EWU panel says

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry evaded some questions, made some claims they never backed up and switched subjects when it suited them, a panel of experts told a crowd gathered in an Eastern Washington University auditorium to watch the final debate.

But overall, the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger had “a great clash,” generally sticking to issues, said Jeanne Ratliffe, a communications professor.

“It probably depends on where you stood on the issues, how you view the debate,” Ratliffe said. “It pointed out fundamental differences, and you could make a decision on where you stood.”

About 150 students, faculty and staff watched the debate in a darkened auditorium in the John F. Kennedy Library. They chuckled occasionally, like when Bush said his wife’s English is better than his, or when Kerry said he really “married up.” Someone blurted out, “Oh wow!” when the candidates were asked whether homosexuality was a choice. They grumbled when Bush was asked about raising the minimum wage, and answered by talking about education.

That last was a standard debate dodge, evading the question, philosophy professor Terry MacMullan said.

Bush did it again when he was asked whether he supported Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision on a woman’s right to choose an abortion, and answered by saying he would not have a litmus test for judges, MacMullan said. Kerry did it when he was asked about quotas and affirmative action, and he said Bush hadn’t met with the NAACP.

Bush also used a tactic known as “poisoning the well” when he referred several times, with a negative connotation, to Kerry being more liberal than Ted Kennedy, the other senator from Massachusetts, MacMullan said.

“Ted Kennedy’s not running for president. Ted Kennedy’s got nothing to do with it,” he said.

The candidates said some things that just aren’t true, economics professor Doug Orr said, like when Bush asserted there was an impending Social Security crisis and blamed the shortage of flu vaccine on an English company.

Most economists don’t believe there’s a Social Security crisis, said Orr, who studies that system extensively.

The vaccine manufacturer “is a U.S. corporation, producing the vaccine in England because they have less sanitary regulations,” he added.

Kerry could have been clearer in his criticism about Pell Grants by saying that the amount spent on the program has gone down when inflation is taken into account and is spread over more students, Orr said. And one of the candidates should have said quickly that the grants are government money given to needy college students, since even some in the crowd at EWU didn’t know what those were.

Kerry seemed to be “trying to have it both ways” when he answered a question about the conflict between being a Catholic and supporting abortion rights, MacMullan said. Mentioning that he was a former altar boy could be considered pandering, he added.

But the question of whether Kerry would follow the bishops’ dictates was an interesting turnaround from 1960, Orr noted, when John Kennedy had to repeatedly say that as president he would not “do what the pope said.”

Kerry is a more practiced debater and did a better job of controlling the debate and answering questions, Ratliffe said. But Bush was able to point out the clear differences in where they stand and “the majority of people don’t make their decisions on debating points.”