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Bush, Kerry trade charges over jobs, health care, taxes
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President George W. Bush, right, and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, left, meet before the start of Wednesday's debate. (Photo by Jeff Haynes /Getty Images)

Tempe, AZ — (AP) Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday night that President George W. Bush bears responsibility for a misguided war in Iraq, lost jobs at home and mounting millions without health care. The Republican incumbent tagged his rival in campaign debate as a lifelong liberal bent on raising taxes and government spending.

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Image John Kerry

"There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said in the final debate of a close and contentious campaign for the White House. "Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."

Undeterred, the Democratic challenger said many of the nation's ills can be laid at Bush's feet.

He "regrettably rushed us into war" in Iraq, Kerry said, and pushed "alliances away and as a result America ... is not as safe as we ought to be."

On employment, he said, "This is the first president in 72 years to preside over an economy in America that has lost jobs. Eleven other presidents, six Democrats and five Republicans had wars, had recessions, had great difficulties. None of them lost jobs the way this president has."

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Image President Bush

As for health care, the Democratic senator said, "5 million Americans have lost" coverage under Bush's watch. "The president has turned his back on the wellness of America, and there is no system and it's starting to fall apart," Kerry said.

Kerry and the president also debated abortion, gay rights, immigration and more in a 90-minute debate that underscored their deep differences only 20 days before the election.

This debate was similar in format to the first - the two rivals standing behind identical lecterns set precisely 10 feet apart. Bush was on better behavior, though, and there was no grimacing and scowling this time when it was Kerry's turn to speak.

The debate was also a policy wonk's dream - a blizzard of facts and figures, references to "budget caps" and other terms meaningful only to Washington insiders.

Taxes was a particular flash point between the two men.

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Image Fox in the audience

Questioned by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS, Kerry said he would follow through on his plan to roll back tax cuts for Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year while preserving the reductions that have gone to lower and middle income wage earners.

Under Bush, he said, the tax burden of the wealthy has gone down and that of the middle class has gone up. But Bush said Kerry would never stick to his promise, and his election would mean higher taxes for all.

He said that in more than 20 years in the Senate, Kerry had voted 97 times to raise taxes and twice as often against cutting them.

"Anybody can play with those votes, everybody knows that," Kerry retorted to Bush.

"Senator, no one's playing with your votes," the president said.

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Image The Bush family

Bush made a similar point when the debate turned to health care.

While Kerry said he had a plan to help expand health coverage for those who lack it, Bush said, "plan is not a litany of complaints. And a plan is not to lay out programs you can't pay for."

The president said Kerry's proposal would cost the government $7,700 per family. "If every family in America signed up, it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years," he said. "It's an empty promise. It's called bait-and-switch."

The two men disagreed over abortion, Kerry saying the choice should be "between a woman, God and her doctor."

The president said he wants to promote a "culture of life, and said Kerry voted "out of the mainstream" when he opposed legislation to ban so-called partial birth abortions.

Asked directly whether he supports overturning the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to abortion, Bush sidestepped. "What you're asking me is will I have a litmus test for my judges, and the answer is no," the president said.

The president dodged a bit, too, when the issue of a minimum wage increase came up.

Kerry said emphatically he favors one, and said that Republicans in control of Congress had repeatedly blocked Democratic attempts to pass legislation.

Bush said he supported "Mitch McConnell's" bill to raise the minimum wage, without explanation. McConnell is a Republican senator from Kentucky. As a candidate four years ago, Bush said he favored raising a minimum wage so long as individual states were permitted to exclude workers within their borders.

Bush and Kerry agreed on one point, stating that marriage should be preserved for heterosexual couples. But they gave different answers when asked about whether homosexuality was a choice.

"I don't know," said the president.

Kerry referred to Vice President Dick Cheney's gay daughter, and said it was not a choice. "We're all God's children," he said.

Kerry said that the recent expiration of a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons was a "failure of presidential leadership" and that because of it, terrorists can purchase weapons at gun shows in the United States.

Bush said there weren't enough votes in Congress to extend the ban.

But Kerry said if he were told by Tom DeLay he'd insist on a fight to win the necessary support. DeLay, R-Texas, is the House majority leader and an opponent of gun control.

Asked about the Catholic bishops who have advised parishioners it would be a sin to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, Kerry evoked the name of John F. Kennedy, another Massachusetts senator and the first Catholic elected president.

He quoted Kennedy's famous 1960 campaign statement in which he said he wasn't running to become a Catholic president, but the first president who happens to be a Catholic.


President Bush overlooked a flip-flop of his own when he boasted Wednesday about launching the Homeland Security Department: He was against it before he was for it. John Kerry told Americans he has a health care plan that covers all of them, when he doesn't.

Figures and rhetorical claims flew in the last presidential debate, and not all them were on target.

Kerry accurately quoted Bush as saying he does not think much about Osama bin Laden and is not all that concerned about him. The president protested: "I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."

But in March 2002, Bush indeed said, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run." He described the terrorist leader as "marginalized," and said, "I just don't spend that much time on him."

Kerry declared, "I have a plan to cover all Americans" with health insurance, but even his campaign does not contend his blueprint would eliminate the ranks of the uninsured. Independent analysts say full implementation of Kerry's plan would extend coverage to about 25 million of the nearly 45 million uninsured.

He also said Bush has cut Pell grants, but later altered the accusation when the president pointed out accurately that about 1 million more students are getting the aid than when he took office. Kerry then said Bush has not raised the maximum Pell grant as much as promised.

"They're not getting the $5,100 the president promised them," he said. Education Secretary Rod Paige said the month after Bush took office that the maximum grant for first-year students would go up by more than half, to $5,100. But the maximum now is $4,050.

Also in the debate:

- Kerry, trying to show Bush has paid too little heed to civil rights, stated flatly, "This is a president who hasn't met with the Black Congressional Caucus." Actually, Bush met the caucus at the White House within two weeks of taking office.

- Bush talked about how he signed the bill creating the Homeland Security Department, putting that on his list of actions that have made the country safer. But he was a convert to that cause, at first opposing the massive reorganization.

- Kerry sharply criticized Bush on port security inspections of ship cargo, saying "95 percent come in today uninspected. That's not good enough."

Kerry's claim ignores that the manifests of all U.S.-bound cargo are screened before they reach American ports and all high-risk cargo is identified. U.S. officials then physically inspect the high-risk cargo - which accounts for about 5 percent of the overall total.

On whether the inspections are adequate, a new report by the Homeland Security Department internal investigator that surfaced Wednesday concluded federal inspectors of oceangoing shipping containers still need to improve their detection equipment and search procedures to prevent terrorists from sneaking weapons of mass destruction into the United States.

- Bush accused Kerry of voting 98 times to raise taxes during his 19-year Senate career. An analysis by the Annenberg Public Policy Center's found that 43 of the votes cited by the president involved budget measures that merely set targets for taxes without actually legislating changes to the tax code. The list also counted multiple votes on the same bills, including 16 votes on the 1993 Clinton package of tax increases and spending cuts.

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