Bush: world safer; Kerry: danger increased
US President George W. Bush said the invasion of Iraq made the world safer when a voter asked about now-discredited intelligence leading up to the war during a town- hall debate with four-term Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
"I saw a unique threat in Saddam Hussein as did my opponent because we thought he had weapons of mass destruction," Bush, 58, told the audience at Washington University in St. Louis. "I wasn't happy when we found out there wasn't weapons and we've got an intelligence group together to figure out why."
"The world is more dangerous today because the president made the wrong decisions," Kerry, 60, said in a debate that focused early on the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism. "The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapons of mass deception."
Kerry came into this second 90-minute debate with an advantage after a victory in the first meeting helped him erase Bush's lead in polls, Bruce Newman, editor of the Journal of Political Marketing, said before tonight's debate. Ten of 12 national polls released since the Sept. 30 debate show the race in a statistical tie between Kerry and Bush.
"Kerry has now shown that he's his equal at least," Newman, a marketing professor at Chicago's DePaul University who specializes in image strategies and voter behavior, said before tonight's debate.
Bush defended both his domestic and international policies after the Labor Department reported today that the economy added fewer jobs than expected in September and a CIA report on Oct. 6 showed Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, one of Bush's main justifications for the war.
"It is a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq," Kerry said.
Bush challenged Kerry's ability to lead the U.S. and allies in a war he called the wrong war at the wrong time. "I don't see we can win in Iraq if you don't believe we should be there in the first place," Bush said. "You've got to be consistent when you're the president. You've got to be firm."
L. Paul Bremer, the former top U.S. official in Iraq, said that the U.S. needed more troops at the start of the occupation and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he hadn't seen "hard evidence" of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Bush may also have to explain those statements.
"Two weeks ago, I said he should keep the focus on Iraq and terrorism," which polls show voters trust Bush more to handle, said James W. Davis, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "My own view now is that he needs to answer questions on it, but if I were him, I would not want to keep the focus on it."
Kerry stepped up his attacks on the president's policies in Iraq in recent weeks. Yesterday, he told reporters that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth in Iraq."
Cheney said in his Oct. 5 debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee and North Carolina Senator John Edwards that invading Iraq was "exactly the right thing to do."
Kerry also says Bush will be the first president since the Great Depression to preside over a drop in employment. According to Labor Department figures, the U.S. economy has 821,000 fewer jobs than when Bush took office in January 2001. In September, U.S. employers added 96,000 workers, short of the 148,000 median estimate of economists in a Bloomberg survey.
Bush blames a recession, the Sept. 11 attacks and corporate scandals for job losses during his term. Record homeownership and low welfare rolls are examples of improvement in the economy, he said in an Oct. 6 speech.
"The recession is behind us and we're creating jobs again," Bush said. "In the past year, the United States has added about 1.7 million new jobs -- more than Germany, Japan, Great Britain, Canada and France combined."
In tonight's debate, moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC News, about 20 uncommitted voters chosen by the Gallup Organization were called on to ask questions, pre-selected by Gibson. The campaigns agreed to rules that direct Gibson to stop any voter who strays from the approved question. Participants' microphones will be cut off after they ask their question so they can't follow up.
`Gag the Audience'
"What they're trying to do is basically gag that audience," said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and author of "Televised Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV." The Bush team didn't want the town hall and agreed to it only after concessions on the other debates, he said. "Their next thought was to try to get the rules that they thought might favor Bush."
While debate specialists such as Schroeder say that Bush's weakness is thinking on his feet in an uncontrolled environment, they also said he has a strength in connecting with people. Bush topped Kerry when voters were asked who cares more about people and who is more honest and truthful, according to an Oct. 1-3 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Bush holds stylistically similar "Ask President Bush" events that are limited to supporters, most of whom are campaign volunteers. Bush easily works the stage, sleeves rolled up and microphone in hand.
"Bush seems to warm up in the less formal environment of a town-hall type meeting," said Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at Fairfax, Virginia-based George Mason University. "Of course, Bush's practice with town-hall meetings has all been before friendly GOP audiences so he could end up looking flustered again."
Voters in a focus group run by Republican pollster Frank Luntz described the expressions on Bush's face during the first debate on Sept. 30 as arrogant and annoyed. Sixteen of the 18 voters in Luntz's group declared Kerry the winner of that meeting and five switched from undecided to supporting Kerry, Luntz said. None switched to Bush.
"After the first debate, all Kerry has to do is look like he can be president. Then he is in play," pollster Dick Bennett, president of the American Research Group Inc. in Manchester, New Hampshire, said before tonight's debate.
Bush can't answer questions well in the debates so he's forced to attack Kerry and paint him as a "tax-and-spend liberal," Bennett said.
"Part of Bush's problem is that in the first debate he reinforced what a lot of voters think about him," Bennett said. People think Bush is "stubborn, he is not willing to look at the situation objectively. Kerry says `you are the only who sees it this way.' This is what hurts Bush. Bush's father had the same problem on the economy. He didn't get it. He didn't understand what people were talking about."
The last of three presidential debates will take place Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. The debate will have the same format as the first one, with Kerry and Bush standing at podiums. The questions will focus on domestic policy and will be prepared by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News.