President Bush and John F. Kerry battled sharply over domestic issues Wednesday night in the final debate of the 2004 campaign. The Democratic nominee charged that the president has compiled a record of failure on the economy and health care, and Bush accused Kerry of a Senate record that is both out of the mainstream and lacking in accomplishment.
Kerry repeatedly sought to put Bush on the defensive, charging that he has allowed the economy to go backward, has turned budget surpluses into deficits and has stood by as millions of Americans have lost their health insurance.
The president tried to parry those attacks by challenging Kerry's record during his 20 years in the Senate, accusing him of repeatedly voting to raise taxes, of failing to do anything significant to reform health care and of favoring health care changes that would greatly enhance the federal government's power.
"He's . . . the only president in 72 years to lose jobs -- 1.6 million jobs lost," Kerry said. "He's the only president to have incomes of families go down for the last three years, the only president to see exports go down, the only president to see the lowest level of business investment in our country as it is today. Now, I'm going to reverse that. I'm going to change that. We're going to restore the fiscal discipline we had in the 1990s."
Bush scoffed at Kerry's statements, saying: "His rhetoric doesn't match his record. He's been a senator for 20 years. He voted to increase taxes 98 times. When they tried to reduce taxes, he voted against that 127 times. He talks about being a fiscal conservative, or fiscally sound, but he voted over -- he voted 277 times to waive the budget caps, which would have cost the taxpayers $4.2 trillion."
Amid the exchange of charges and countercharges, Bush and Kerry spoke personally about the role of faith and religion in their lives and how that animates their view of governing. They also occasionally played fast and loose with facts, and each repeatedly charged the other with distortions and inaccuracies.
Wednesday's 90-minute debate came as the presidential race has tightened significantly, with Kerry using the first two debates to eliminate what had been a Bush lead of about five percentage points in national polls. The latest Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, completed before the debate, showed Kerry at 49 percent and Bush at 48 percent among likely voters -- the first time Kerry has been ahead in that poll since early August.
With the debates behind them, the candidates will begin a three-week run that will take them through fewer than a dozen truly competitive battleground states as they attempt to appeal to the relatively small pool of undecided voters and mobilize their strongest supporters for a widespread get-out-the-vote operation.
The debate, held at Arizona State University and moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News, covered broad terrain, with the candidates discussing Social Security, education, gun control, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, immigration, abortion and the shortage of flu vaccine.
The heart of the debate was bread-and-butter issues, with Kerry arguing that Bush has favored the wealthy over the middle class with tax cuts and the president warning middle-class voters that a Kerry administration would mean higher taxes not only on the wealthy but on average Americans as well, describing Kerry's talk as "bait and switch" politics.
"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said. "As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."
Kerry was equally dismissive of Bush's criticisms, saying the president "walks on by" the nation's economic problems. "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," he said.
In one of the sharpest exchanges, Kerry warned that Bush's plan to allow workers to put a small percentage of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts is "an invitation to disaster" that would cost too much and be too risky. Bush has not detailed a plan, but experts say any plan to partly privatize the system would carry a short-term cost of at least $1 trillion, and perhaps twice that amount, to make up for the shortfall during the transition.
Bush said Kerry's plan to do nothing would be far more dangerous. "I want to warn my fellow citizens: The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is okay, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children," Bush said. Kerry said he would rely on robust fiscal growth to increase government revenue and extend the life of the program.
On health care, Bush said an independent study showed that Kerry's plan would cost more than $1 trillion, add 20 million Americans to government health care rolls and lead to lower-quality care. "We have a fundamental difference of opinion," he said. "I think government-run health will lead to poor-quality health, will lead to rationing, will lead to less choice."
Kerry called Bush's claims inaccurate and said the president's campaign has consistently distorted what his plan would do. "The fact is that my health care plan, America, is very simple," he said. "It gives you the choice. I don't force you to do anything. It's not a government plan. The government doesn't require you to do anything. You choose your doctor. You choose your plan. If you don't want to take the offer of the plan that I want to put forward, you don't have to."
The candidates greatly disagree on cultural issues, including same-sex marriage, abortion and, to a lesser extent, gun control. In the clearest terms to date, Kerry said he would impose a litmus test on judicial selections to protect abortion rights. "I'm not going to appoint a judge to the court who's going to undo a constitutional right, whether it's the First Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment, or some other right that's given under our courts today -- under the Constitution," he said." And I believe that the right of choice is a constitutional right."
Bush said he would not impose any litmus test on judges, but was less clear about whether he would push to overturn Roe v. Wade. Kerry said, "I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade." Bush criticized Kerry for refusing to support efforts such as the ban on what opponents call "partial birth" abortion to reduce the number of legal abortions each year. "I understand there's great differences on this issue of abortion, but I believe reasonable people can come together and put good law in place that will help reduce the number of abortions," Bush said.
On the politically charged issue of same-sex marriage, Bush defended his support for a constitutional amendment banning the practice and warned that judges were trying to redefine marriage. "I proposed a constitutional amendment. The reason I did so was because I was worried that activist judges are actually defining the definition of marriage, and the surest way to protect marriage between a man and woman is to amend the Constitution," he said.
The president sharply criticized Kerry for opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman, during the Clinton administration. "I'm concerned that [the act] will get overturned. And if it gets overturned, then we'll end up with marriage being defined by courts, and I don't think that's in our nation's interests," Bush said. The president said he is unsure whether people are born gay.
Kerry said he thinks they are. "I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as," he said. The Democratic nominee said he believes marriage is between a man and woman, too, but reiterated his opposition to amending the Constitution. "I also believe that because we are the United States of America, we're a country with a great, unbelievable constitution, with rights that we afford people, that you can't discriminate in the workplace."
The candidates shared details about their religious faith and how it influences their political views. Bush is a born-again Christian who speaks openly and often of his faith; Kerry is a more reserved Catholic who has gradually opened up about his faith as the campaign has progressed.
During the debate, Kerry talked more about God and faith than he has in some time. He quoted Scripture twice. "I went to a church school and I was taught that the two greatest commandments are 'Love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, your body and your soul' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' " he said. "And frankly, I think we have a lot more loving of our neighbor to do in this country and on this planet," he said.
Bush was perhaps most passionate and articulate when he talked about faith and family. "My faith is a very -- it's very personal. I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls," he said.
He added, "I'm mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You're equally an American if you choose to worship an Almighty and if you choose not to. If you're a Christian, Jew or Muslim, you're equally an American. That's the great thing about America, is the right to worship the way you see fit."
On gun control, Kerry accused Bush of failing to exhibit strong leadership by refusing to push hard to extend the ban on several types of semiautomatic weapons. The bans expired last month. Bush blamed Republicans and Democrats in Congress for blocking it, and Kerry said: "If Tom DeLay or someone in the House said to me, 'Sorry, we don't have the votes,' I'd have said, 'Then we're going to have a fight.' "
On several occasions when Kerry attacked Bush, including over the administration's failure to support a big increase in the minimum wage, Bush turned the discussion to education and his No Child Left Behind Act.
Bush called on healthy Americans to forgo flu shots because of vaccine shortages. The president said he was leading by example after learning British regulators had found manufacturing problems at the Liverpool plants of a major U.S. supplier. "I haven't gotten a flu shot, and I don't intend to because I want to make sure those who are most vulnerable get treated," he said.
He blamed the British company for the shortage, though officials there have said the United States was made aware of a possible shortage and did not act quickly.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.