Iraq, jobs on agenda for Bush-Kerry debate
US President Bush seeks to rebound from his poor showing last week when he faces Sen. John Kerry on Friday night in a second debate that is sure to focus on the Iraq war and a lackluster U.S. economy.
The White House rivals meet at Washington University in St. Louis, with Bush hoping to rebound from a first debate where the Massachusetts senator's aggressive attacks put him on the defensive.
The debate follows a round of bitter campaign exchanges on the Iraq war, a climb in the polls for Kerry and a weak jobs report on Friday that Democrats said was evidence the economy still suffers under Bush.
The economy added just 96,000 workers in September, well short of economic forecasts for 148,000 new hires. Most of the jobs came in the services sector as manufacturers dropped 18,000 jobs after increased hiring in the two prior months.
Kerry went on the attack immediately, saying Bush was the first president since the Depression era to oversee a loss of jobs.
"Tonight I look forward to talking to America about how we can have a better plan to put Americans back to work and to create better jobs for our country," Kerry said on an afternoon visit to the debate site.
Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, told supporters in Pennsylvania that they should outsource Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
"We need a president and vice president who will fight for your jobs as hard as they fight for theirs," Edwards said in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Republicans looked on the bright side, saying September was the 13th straight month of job creation. The Bush campaign prepared a new advertisement touting the recovery of jobs since unemployment hit bottom.
"There are many reasons to be hopeful about America's future. Nearly 2 million new jobs in just over a year," the narrator says in a theme Bush is certain to repeat in the debate.
Bush will be under pressure on Friday to turn in a stronger debate performance and put the focus back on Kerry's Senate voting record and what Republicans say are his shifting statements on Iraq.
"We're going to see a different President Bush at this debate," predicted Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, who said Wednesday's harsh attack on Kerry from the campaign trail was a preview of a more aggressive Bush.
Polls show the race for the White House tightening after the last debate, with Kerry pulling close or even to Bush in most national surveys. A new Reuters/Zogby poll had the race in a statistical dead heat.
The two candidates have battered each other for weeks over the war in Iraq and Bush's optimistic view of that country's future.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney defended the invasion on Thursday despite a new U.S. report that said Baghdad had not rebuilt its program for chemical, biological or nuclear weapons after the 1991 Gulf War -- the principal justification for the war.
Kerry said Bush "aggrandized and fictionalized" the threat from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and "the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."
The debate on Friday will be in a town hall format, where the candidates perch on stools to answer questions submitted by an audience of undecided voters and have the latitude to move about the stage.
Unlike the first debate, which focused heavily on Iraq, the topics in the second debate are unlimited and expected to include more domestic issues, including the jobs figures.
Both campaigns said the format would benefit their opponent. Bush frequently uses the town hall setting on the campaign trail, while Bush aides said Kerry's rhetorical skills and background as a prosecutor would pay off for him.
Nearly 63 million people watched the first debate. The audience is expected to drop on Friday, when people are busy with other activities and the baseball playoffs will compete for attention, but will still be significant.
"People are engaged, they're listening, they want to know where the candidates stand on policy and what their vision is for the next four years. We expect this next debate to be well-watched," Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said.