Under Fire, Kerry Fires Back in Second Presidential Debate

By Todd S. Purdum

New York Times

October 9, 2004

Halfway through last night's debate, President Bush declared: "The best way to defend America in this world we live in is to stay on the offense," but he spent much of the evening on the defensive against John Kerry's unyielding accusations that he had mishandled the war in Iraq and the American economy.

At the outset, Mr. Bush seemed a bit strident and on edge, as if over-eager to avoid a repetition of his pained performance eight days ago. But he appeared to gain comfort as the encounter wore on, sounding considerably more confident and collected than he did last week. He strolled the stage, microphone in hand and characterized Mr. Kerry as "just not credible."

But as often as not, it was Mr. Kerry who was on the offensive on topics like tax cuts in wartime, prescription drug imports, the ballooning deficit, homeland security, the rationale for the war in Iraq and the daunting conditions on the ground there that he said had led to a "back-door draft" of National Guard and Reserve troops.

Mr. Kerry generally seemed to be more in command of his brief, more confident in demeanor and more intent than Mr. Bush to reach across partisan boundaries as he invoked the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower and talked of the importance of balancing budgets. Mr. Bush seemed more content to play to his conservative base.

Like a pair of big cats circling each other in their red-carpeted arena, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry fielded succinct questions from uncommitted voters , and from start to finish they seemed barely able to hide their distaste for each other and their differing views on foreign and domestic issues, including stem cell research and the selection of new justices to the Supreme Court.

Loosed from the anchor of the lectern he often leaned on last week, Mr. Bush addressed members of the live audience by name and the television cameras directly, doing his best to suppress the frowns and squints so widely remarked on in his last performance. He declined an offer to list three mistakes he had made in office, but offered a fresh formulation in defense of his decision to invade Iraq, insisting, "Sometimes in this world you make unpopular decisions because you think they're right."

If Mr. Kerry's task last week was to show himself as a plausible alternative to Mr. Bush as commander in chief, last night he strived to show that he could be an acceptable television presence in the living rooms of viewers - and voters. He, too, addressed his questioners by name, and accused Mr. Bush of using the campaign as a "weapon of mass deception" to attack his character and record unfairly, and of pursuing policies that have left the world "more dangerous today."

"He wants you to believe that I can't be president," Mr. Kerry said, "and he's trying to make you believe it because he wants you to think I changed my mind. Well, let me tell you straight up: I've never changed my mind about Iraq." Mr. Kerry added that he, too, had believed Saddam Hussein posed a threat, and was prepared to use force if necessary, but added: "I would have used that authority wisely, not rushed to war without a plan to win the peace."

Unlike their first debate, which produced a sharp swing in national polls to Mr. Kerry's advantage, their exchange last night seemed more apt to reinforce the views of each man's supporters, while offering undecided voters some fresh context and insight into their divergent policies and personalities.

Both men recycled lines from their stump speeches, but some of Mr. Bush's seemed to fall flat without the supportive applause he can count on at partisan rallies.

Asked late in the debate whether he could assure people who believe abortion is murder that their tax dollars would not support it, Mr. Kerry spoke in personal terms about his faith as a Roman Catholic, but never gave a direct answer. By contrast, Mr. Bush declared, "My answer is that we're not going to spend taxpayer money on abortion."

Again, despite rules limiting them from questioning each other directly, the candidates produced real exchanges. After Mr. Kerry accused him of diverting attention from the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden in order to attack Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush had a crisp rejoinder.

"It's a fundamental misunderstanding to say that the war on terror is only Osama bin Laden," Mr. Bush said. "The war on terror is to make sure that these terrorist organizations do not end up with weapons of mass destruction. That's what the war on terror is about. Of course we are going to find Osama bin Laden.''

Mr. Kerry's rebuttals were equally brisk and dismissive. After Mr. Bush insisted, "We're not going to have a draft so long as I'm the president," Mr. Kerry shot back: "Our Guard and Reserves have been turned into almost active duty. You've got people doing two and three rotations. You've got stop-loss policies so people can't get out when they were supposed to. You've got a back-door draft right now."

After Mr. Bush insisted that he had listened to his generals and supplied all the troops they sought in Iraq, Mr. Kerry countered, "Military's job is to win the war; president's job is to win the peace."

One theme that emerged again and again was the gulf between Mr. Bush's stated aspirations for Iraq and the domestic economy and Mr. Kerry's grim, unsparing summary of the week's headlines about both.

Since their last debate, a report from the administration's own chief weapons inspector found that Iraq possessed no chemical and biological stockpiles when the war began, and the latest employment figures released yesterday confirmed Mr. Bush's status as the first president since Herbert Hoover to face re-election with fewer Americans at work than when he first won.

Polls since the last debate have shown a razor-close race, and at least one new poll - by Time magazine - has Mr. Kerry at last trumping Mr. Bush on likeability, the factor on which the Democrat has generally lagged all year. Last night, Mr. Kerry insisted at one point that Mr. Bush "promises you more of the same over the next four years."

In his own way, Mr. Bush acknowledged as much, saying that while he might have made some tactical errors or bad appointments, he had no regrets about his biggest decisions.

"History will look back, and I'm fully prepared to accept any mistakes that history judges to my administration, because the president makes the decisions, the president has to take the responsibility."

History's judgment is a ways off. The voters' will come in just over three weeks.