President Bush and his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, met in the Midwestern city of St Louis, Missouri, for their second debate of this year's presidential election season Friday. It was a freewheeling and spirited exchange of views.
In a town hall-style meeting, the two presidential candidates fielded questions from ordinary citizens about concerns ranging from the war in Iraq to stem cell research.
The war dominated the discussion for much of the first half of the debate. President Bush defended his policy, and attacked what he called Senator Kerry's varying positions on Iraq. "I do not think my opponent has got the right view about the world to make us safe; I really don't. First of all, I don't think he can succeed in Iraq, and if Iraq were to fail, it would be a haven for terrorists, and there would be money, and the world would be more dangerous," he said.
Mr. Bush said his opponent's previous statements on Iraq would make it hard for him to be commander-in-chief. He said it would be hard for Senator Kerry to lead U.S. troops there, after saying that the war was a mistake.
Senator Kerry, however, said President Bush had gone about the war in the wrong way by not allowing United Nations inspectors to continue their work in Iraq, and by not building a strong international coalition to help share the burden of the war. He challenged the president's assertion that he had built a strong coalition of 30 nations to help in the Iraq effort. "Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining. Eight countries have left it. If Missouri, just given the number of people from Missouri who are in the military over there today, were a country, it would be the third largest country in the coalition, behind Great Britain and the United States. That is not a grand coalition," he said.
Senator Kerry also criticized the president for neglecting growing threats from Iran and North Korea, while, as he put it, "rushing into" the war in Iraq. Mr. Kerry said he has a better plan for Iraq and for winning the war on terrorism.
On domestic policy, the two candidates clashed over a number of issues, from the economy and taxes, to health care and the high cost of prescription drugs.
One of the biggest areas of contention was cutting taxes. President Bush said his tax plan was necessary to stimulate the economy, and that his policy is beginning to show effect. He criticized Senator Kerry for his spending plans. "He has proposed $2.2 trillion of new spending. And, he says he is going to tax the rich to close the tax gap. He can't. He is going to tax everybody here to fund his programs. That is just reality," he said.
Senator Kerry said the president was distorting his proposals. He said it was President Bush's Republican administration that took the country into its current deficit. "The president was handed a $5.6 trillion surplus, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "That is where he was when he came into office. We now have a $2.6 trillion deficit. This is the biggest turnaround in the history of the country."
The 90-minute debate was held in an auditorium in Washington University's athletic building on a floor more often used for basketball than politics. The flexible format of this town hall meeting allowed for a free flowing debate, in which both candidates could address the audience and direct remarks at each other. The next and final debate of this presidential election year is scheduled for next Wednesday in Tempe, Arizona.