Assertive Bush clashes with cool Kerry

Town-hall style rematch of the candidates sees the President improve - but the challenger still edges verdict
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The Independent US

President George Bush tried to claw back lost ground in his race against John Kerry using the second debate on Friday night to portray his opponent as an extreme liberal who would be forced to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for his programmes. On foreign policy, he branded him "naive and dangerous".

President George Bush tried to claw back lost ground in his race against John Kerry using the second debate on Friday night to portray his opponent as an extreme liberal who would be forced to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for his programmes. On foreign policy, he branded him "naive and dangerous".

While the first debate just over a week ago in Miami left Republicans despairing over the President's mostly peevish performance, nerves may have been calmed somewhat following a more assertive approach by Mr Bush during a testy town hall-style meeting in St Louis, Missouri.

The debate series nonetheless still seems to be giving fresh advantage to Mr Kerry, who, by most estimates, at least scored a tie in St Louis. An instant poll by CNN of viewers, who were more Republican than Democrat, declared him the winner, though barely, by 47 per cent to 45 per cent over Mr Bush. An ABC poll gave it to Mr Kerry by a similar margin.

For 90 minutes before an audience of 140 people who said they were not yet sure whom they would support, the candidates once again illustrated their starkly different opinions on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to tax cuts and the cost of prescription medicines. Mr Kerry again said the war was a "colossal mistake" and Osama bin Laden might have been dead if it had not been waged.

The evening also emphasised the starkly conflicting styles of both men. Less defensive than in Miami, Mr Bush rediscovered his knack of expressing himself in simple, almost homely, terms. While Mr Kerry seemed to have a flawless, sometimes scholarly, command of the issues, his use of names and statistics was sometimes dizzying.

Answering questions posed by audience members, the candidates found themselves fiercely at odds over foreign policy. Mr Bush, who seemed slightly over-caffeinated at the start, reacted fiercely when Mr Kerry suggested that America was essentially going it alone in the Iraq war. Springing from his stool and almost talking over the moderator, Charlie Gibson of ABC News, the President protested: "I've got to answer this. You tell Tony Blair we're going alone." Asserting that Mr Kerry had been named the most liberal US Senator, Mr Bush went on to question his pledge not to raise taxes for the middle classes. He warned that Mr Kerry's spending plans would cost $2.2 trillion (£1.2 trillion). "He's going to tax everybody here to fund these programmes."

Mr Bush went on: "When he talks about being fiscally conservative, it's just not credible. If you look at his record in the Senate he voted to break the spending caps over 200 times. And here he says he's going to be a fiscal conservative all of a sudden."

Mr Kerry complained: "The President is trying to scare everybody with throwing labels around," then recalling a label that Mr Bush applied to himself four years ago - compassionate conservative. "I mean, compassionate conservative, what does that mean?"

The final debate on Wednesday, in Tempe, Arizona, will turn solely on domestic issues. According to polls, these are more likely to benefit the Democrat. Here in St Louis, Mr Kerry pounced on the Bush administration's refusal to allow private citizens to import cheap prescription drugs from Canada. Mr Bush countered that they may not be safe. "When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn't kill you," he said.

The Senator was helped on Friday by figures showing job growth of 96,000 in September that were lower than had been forecast. He reminded viewers that Mr Bush is the first President in 72 years to oversee a net loss in jobs. He also took the chance to highlight America's record deficit, accrued under Mr Bush partly because of his tax cuts for the rich. "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," Mr Kerry said. "Go figure."

When asked whether he would spend tax dollars on providing abortions, Mr Kerry argued that his Catholic beliefs cannot dictate public policy that affects people of all religions. Mr Bush retorted: "I'm trying to decipher that ... We're not going to spend federal money on abortion."

Trying again to rebut the Republican line that he has flip-flopped on the war, Mr Kerry accused Mr Bush of misrepresenting his views by 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". Replying to a question about whether sufficient troops had been sent in at the start of the invasion, Mr Bush recalled meeting generals in the White House and asking if they had everything they needed. "And they said, 'Yes, Mr President'."

Mr Kerry inferred that planning for after the invasion had been left undone. "The military's job is to win the war. The President's job is to win the peace."

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