In a heated 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. Mr. Bush said Kerry would have to raise taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for $2.2 trillion in new spending programs.
"That's just reality," Mr. Bush declared.
"The president's trying to scare everybody here," Kerry responded.
The two candidates quarreled aggressively over the war in Iraq, jobs, education, health care, the environment, cheaper drugs and tort reform at a town-hall session 25 days before the election.
Under questions from a select audience of uncommitted voters at Washington University, Kerry was asked to pledge not to raise taxes on people making $200,000 or less. "Absolutely yes, right into the camera. Yes, I am not going to raise taxes," the Democratic challenger said. Mr. Bush scoffed at the answer. "Of course he's going to raise your taxes."
Estimating that Kerry's proposals would cost $2.2 trillion, Mr. 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.
Mr. Bush drew criticism in his first debate with Kerry last week for scowling at his opponent's criticism. 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," Mr. Bush said, cutting off Gibson, then indignantly responded to Kerry. "You tell Tony Blair we're going alone."
After the debate, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer said that, "John Kerry got off to a much better start, as he did in the first debate, tonight. I thought the best part of the president's presentation tonight was his closing statement, when he truly seemed to be speaking from the heart. He's always at his best it seems to me when he talks about 9/11."
An ABC News poll of debate viewers gave the edge to Kerry by the narrow margin of 44-41 percent. The survey included slightly more Democrats (35 percent) than Republicans (32 percent).
While the debate was open to all questions, Iraq was a dominant theme.
Criticizing the president's decision to invade Iraq, Kerry said, "If we'd 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. 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. Mr. Bush said, "We didn't find out he didn't have weapons till we got there." Weapons of mass destruction was 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 Mr. 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.
"I can see why people think he changes a lot," Mr. 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.
The candidates were also put on the spot about their plans for the economy.
"We did something that you don't know how to do," Kerry told the president. "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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bush took office to a record $422 billion deficit this election year.
One questioner asked Mr. 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, Mr. Bush said, "I'm trying to decipher that." Confronting the question directly, he said, "We're not going to spend federal money on abortion."
Mr. Bush also set to lay to rest persistent 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.
Polls before Friday's debate showed the race a virtual tie. A Time magazine poll of likely voters showed the Bush-Kerry race a dead heat, 45-45 percent. Independent Ralph Nader had 3 percent of the vote.
Areleased earlier this week also showed a tie between Mr. Bush and Sen. Kerry, 47-47 percent.
The first presidential debate in Florida was watched by 62.5 million viewers. But the second encounter was not expected to draw as many because it came on a Friday night at the same time baseball playoffs were airing. Some 43.6 million viewers were estimated to have watched Tuesday night's vice presidential debate.
The third and final presidential debate is Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., and will focus on economic and domestic policy.