ST. LOUIS — In a testy debate rematch Friday, Sen. John Kerry derided President Bush as the first leader to preside over job losses in 72 years and said he had transformed huge budget surpluses into massive deficits with wartime tax cuts for the rich. Bush said Kerry would raise taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for $2.2 trillion in new spending programs.
"That's just reality," Bush insisted.
"The president's trying to scare everybody here," Kerry responded.
The two candidates quarreled aggressively over the war in Iraq, jobs, education, health care, abortion, the environment, cheaper drugs and tort reform at a town-hall session 25 days before the election. In just over 90 minutes, they fielded 17 questions from a select audience of uncommitted voters.
Bush said that if Kerry were president, Saddam Hussein "would still be in power." The senator replied: "Not necessarily be in power . . . "
After stumbling in the first debate with a scowling performance, Bush sought to regain his footing, reassure Republicans and throw Kerry on the defensive. Kerry, meanwhile, hoped to build on the momentum of their first encounter, which gave him a lift in the polls.
Asked if he would pledge not to raise taxes on people making $200,000 or less, Kerry said: "Absolutely yes, right into the camera. Yes — I am not going to raise taxes." Bush scoffed at the answer. "Of course he's going to raise your taxes."
Estimating that Kerry's proposals would cost $2.2 trillion, Bush declared, "He's going to tax everybody here to fund these programs." He said Kerry's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy would force 900,000 small business owners to pay
more — a contention disputed by the Kerry campaign.
Bush drew criticism in his first debate with Kerry last week with sharp looks of annoyance. The president's frustration showed again Friday night when he jumped from his seat for forceful answers. At one point, he interrupted moderator Charles Gibson after Kerry had said he was "not going to go alone like this president did" in Iraq.
"I've got to answer this," Bush said, cutting off Gibson, then indignantly responding to Kerry. "You tell Tony Blair we're going alone." There were noticeable snickers in the audience when Bush referred to rumors on the "Internets" about the draft.
While the debate was open to all subjects, Iraq was a dominant theme.
Criticizing the president's decision to invade the Persian Gulf nation, the Democrat said, "If we'd use 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. That's the war on terror."
The debate came two days after the chief U.S. arms inspector reported that Saddam did not have illicit weapons nor the means to make them. Bush said, "I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons, and we've got an intelligence group together to figure out why." Weapons of mass destruction were the central rationale for the war that has cost more than 1,000 American lives.
The debate — the second of three — opened with a question to Kerry about whether he was too wishy-washy. Kerry turned that question into an attack against Bush, saying the president "didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception" by claiming that the four-term Massachusetts senator had changed his mind when he had not.
Kerry said Bush "has presided over an economy where we've lost 1.6 million jobs. The first president in 72 years to lose jobs. I have a plan to put people back to work. That's not wishy-washy." A government report Friday said the nation had lost 821,000 jobs under Bush.
"I can see why people think he changes a lot," Bush retorted, "because he does." He pointed out that Kerry had said he had voted for an $87 billion appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it.
Kerry used the opportunity to point out that the nation has suffered a net job loss under Bush.
Expanding his criticism of Bush on Iraq, Kerry said the president had diverted resources from the war against terror and also ignored a threat from Iran as it accelerated its nuclear program. "It's a threat. It's a huge threat. It has grown while the president was preoccupied with Iraq," the Democratic challenger said.
Responding to criticism from Kerry in their second debate, Bush said, "That answer made me almost want to scowl." He went on to accuse the senator of advocating a policy that was "naive and dangerous" for bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea rather than the six-nation negotiations set in motion by the Bush administration.
Bush also criticized rumors that the war in Iraq would require the nation to return to a military draft. "We're not going to have a draft. Period," the president said.
The Republican incumbent accused Kerry of denigrating the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq with his claim that the United States is shouldering 90 percent of the costs and casualties. "We've got 30 countries there," Bush said, his voice rising. He mentioned Britain, Italy, Poland as well as other allies.
"Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining," Kerry said, asserting that eight countries are pulling out their troops from post-war Iraq.
Bush and Kerry also were put on the spot about their plans for the economy.
"We did something that you don't know how to do," Kerry told Bush. "We balanced the budget. And we paid down the debt of our nation for two years in a row, and we created 23 million new jobs at the same time." He accused Bush of driving up the biggest deficits in history.
"He's added more debt to the debt of the United States in four years than all the way from George Washington to Ronald Reagan put together. Go figure." The budget swung from a record $313 billion surplus projected when Bush took office to a record $422 billion deficit this election year.
One questioner asked Bush whom he would pick if there were a Supreme Court vacancy. "I'm not telling you," the president said. "I really haven't picked anybody yet." He added lightheartedly, "Plus I want them all voting for me."
Kerry said that if he had to pick a Supreme Court justice, "I want to make sure we have judges who interpret the Constitution of the United States according to the law."
Asked about abortion, Kerry, who supports a woman's right to have an abortion, noted that he was a Roman Catholic but said he could not let his faith influence his decision. In a long, rambling answer, he said the United States should not bar the use of federal money for family planning programs overseas.
Referring to Kerry's answer, Bush said, "I'm trying to decipher that." Confronting the question directly, he said, "We're not going to spend federal money on abortion."
The third and final debate will be held Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz., with the focus on domestic issues.