With the presidential election 19 days away, President Bush (search) and John Kerry (search) took their final shots in a face-to-face match-up Wednesday night that focused on domestic issues including abortion, gay marriage and the economy as well as the broader theme of national security.
The candidates squared off for their third and final debate in nearly identical outfits — dark suits with polka-dotted red ties. The moderator's first question centered on whether America's children and grandchildren will "ever live in a world that's as safe and secure as the world in which we grew up."
Both candidates appeared confident that that level of safety is possible, but disagreed on how to get there.
"That's the goal," Kerry responded first. "Now, how do we achieve it is the most critical component of it. I believe this president, regrettably, rushed us into a war, made decisions about foreign policy, pushed alliances away and, as a result, America is now bearing this extraordinary burden where we are not as safe as we should be."
Speaking on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, Kerry noted that police programs have been cut, firehouses have been shut down and cargo security is lacking under the Bush administration.
"I can do a better job of waging a smarter, more effective War on Terror ... we'll do whatever's necessary to be safe," Kerry said.
But Bush, referring back to a Kerry comment published over the weekend, said that the United States can never be safe with a president who believes that terrorism could be reduced to a "nuisance" like drugs or prostitution.
"I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous," Bush said. "I don't think you can secure America in the long run if you don't have a comprehensive view" of how to combat terrorism. "Absolutely we can be more secure in the long run, it just takes good, strong leadership."
Kerry argued that Bush made this country less secure by taking his eyes off of Usama bin Laden (search).
"Six months after he said Usama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, 'Where is Usama bin Laden?' He said, 'I don't know. I don't really think about him very much. I'm not that concerned,'" Kerry quoted Bush as saying.
Bush took exception to the claim.
"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Usama bin Laden," he said. "It's kind of one of those exaggerations — of course we're worried about Usama bin Laden. We're on the hunt after Usama bin Laden. We're using every asset at our disposal to get Usama bin Laden."
Soon after the exchange, the Kerry campaign published a quote the president made during a press conference in March 2002 in which Bush said he doesn't "spend that much time on" the Al Qaeda (search) leader.
"I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you," Bush responded to a reporter's question at the time. "I'm more worried about making sure that our soldiers are well-supplied; that the strategy is clear; that the coalition is strong."
Kerry said Americans currently are facing a "back-door draft" because of repeated and extended call-ups of National Guardsmen and Reservists, which he said is "a reflection of the bad judgment this president exercised and how he has engaged this world and our forces."
If elected, Kerry has vowed to add two active-duty Army divisions and would double the number of Special Forces (search).
But the most important thing is "to run a foreign policy that recognizes that America is strongest when we are working with real alliances, when we are sharing the burdens of the world" and when the United States works through diplomacy, Kerry added.
But, he insisted, "I will never turn over national security decisions to other countries."
Bush said the American servicemen and women don't view their service as a back-door draft but "as an opportunity to serve their country." He also took the opportunity once again to berate Kerry for saying during a previous debate that, if elected, he would make sure the United States passes a "global test" in its moves to defeat terrorism.
The president noted that Kerry voted against giving an international coalition forces in 1990 under the former President Bush to run Saddam Hussein (search) out of Kuwait.
"Apparently, you can't pass any test under his vision of the world," Bush said.
An estimated 1,000 people were in the debate audience at Grammage auditorium, a theater designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright that usually seats about 3,000 people. Seats were equally divided between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, the university and the debate commission. An expected 40 million to 50 million people were watching from home.
In this debate, like the others, each candidate had two minutes to respond to a question, after which the other candidate had a minute and a half to rebut the position. The moderator, CBS News' Bob Schieffer, had the leeway to extend discussion of the question for one minute, calling first upon the candidate who initially received the question.
Before the debate, both campaigns launched pre-emptive strikes, e-mailing lists of what each campaign calls the "top 20 myths and distortions" that each candidate has spread about his opponent's domestic policy record.
Taxes and Gay Marriage Define Differences
Among other things, Kerry vowed that, if elected, he would not raise taxes on those families making less than $200,000 a year. The GOP has blasted Kerry on his pledge, saying he can't possibly pay for all his spending plans without rolling back Bush-backed tax breaks on Americans earning less than that income.
"His rhetoric doesn't match his record," Bush said, highlighting what he calls Kerry's "liberal" Senate record when it comes to votes on taxes. The president cited the Massachusetts senator's 98 votes on the Senate floor to increase taxes.
Kerry shot back, claiming that Bush was fiscally irresponsible. The senator noted that the projected budget surplus anticipated when the president took office has turned into a deficit, Medicare (search) premiums are up 17 percent, prescription drug prices are up 12 percent, and American wages have decreased.
"Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano lecturing me about law and order in this country," Kerry said.
Kerry said, if elected, he would work to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7 an hour, while Bush said more education is the key to improving working conditions for America's workers.
The discussion then turned to the hot-button issues of gay marriage and abortion. Both candidates responded to the question of whether homosexuality is a choice.
"You know Bob, I don't know, I just don't know," Bush answered, adding that it's important to treat people with respect and dignity and consenting adults' choices should be honored.
But, he added, "We shouldn't change or have to change our basic views on the sanctity of marriage ... I think it's very important we protect marriage as a institution, between a man and a woman."
Bush also said he is concerned that "activist judges" rather than the "citizenry of the United States" are deciding the definition of marriage.
Bush cited the Defense of Marriage Act (search), passed by Congress, which says states don't have to recognize other states' same-sex marriages and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"I'm concerned that will get overturned and if that gets overturned, we'll end up with marriage defined by courts and I don't think that's in our nation's interest," Bush said in defense of a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriages.
Kerry said he took a different view, both of homosexuality and how to legislate gay marriage.
"It's not a choice," he said.
"The president and I share the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman," Kerry said, adding that he also believes the Constitution should not be changed. "The states have always been able to manage those laws and they're proving today, every state, that they can manage them adequately."
Some Catholic churches have been telling parishioners it's a "sin" to vote for Kerry because he supports a woman's right to choose and unlimited stem-cell research.
"I respect their views … but I disagree with them, as do many," Kerry said.
"I believe that I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith … I believe that choice is a woman's choice. It's between a woman, God and her doctor. … I will defend the right of Roe v. Wade," Kerry said, referring to the 1973 court decision that gave women the right to terminate pregnancies.
On the issue of abortion, Bush said he believes "good laws" such as the partial-birth abortion ban — which Kerry voted against — can reduce the number of abortions. Promotion of adoption laws and abstinence programs can also help in this effort, he said.
"I believe the ideal world is one in which every child is protected in law and welcomed to life," the president said. "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."
When asked point blank if he would overturn Roe v. Wade (search), Bush said: "What [Kerry's] asking me is if I will have a litmus test for my judges — no, I will have no litmus test."
In his response, Kerry said: "I'm not going to appoint a judge to the court who's going to undo a constitutional right ... and I believe that the right of choice is a constitutional right."
Bush, who has always been vocal in how big a role religion plays in his life, said prayer and religion sustain him and he receives "calmness in the storms of the presidency" from that.
"My faith is very personal," Bush said when asked what role his faith plays in policy-making. "I pray for strength, I pray for wisdom, I pray for our troops in harm's way, I pray for my little girls, but I'm mindful in a free society people can worship or not ... if you're Christian, Jew or Muslim."
While the president said freedom is a gift from God that he wants to promote in his foreign policy, Kerry responded that "everything is a gift from the Almighty" and that taking a lesson from the bible, the United States has a lot more loving of its neighbors to do.
Health Care and Immigration Also Key to Domestic Debate
Bush said the current flu vaccine shortage is a result of an English company that provides half the U.S. vaccines having their vaccines contaminated. The United States is working with Canada to help supply more vaccines, Bush said, but "we took the right action and didn't allow contaminated medicine into our country."
"My call to our fellow Americans is if you're healthy, if you're younger, don't get a flu shot this year," the president said. "Help us prioritize those who need to get the flu shot, the elderly and the young."
Bush added that society has become too litigious and vaccine manufacturers have backed off from providing flu vaccines and others for fear of getting sued.
"One of the reasons I'm such a strong believer in legal reform is so that people aren't afraid of producing a product that is necessary for the health of our citizens and then end up getting sued in a court of law," Bush said.
But Kerry used the contamination of Chiron Corp.'s supply, which resulted in the loss of 46 million to 48 million vaccination shots this year, to underscore the problem with the American health-care system today.
Noting that 5 million Americans have lost their health insurance, including 950,000 with no health insurance at all in Arizona, Kerry said, "This president has turned his back on the wellness of America."
Kerry said he has a plan to make the quality of health care that senators and congressmen receive affordable and accessible for all Americans. But the president called Kerry's plan the equivalent of a national health care system.
"I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints, and a plan is not to lay out programs that you can't pay for," Bush charged, saying that Kerry's proposed plan would cost the government $7,700 per family, or $5 trillion over 10 years. "It's an empty promise. It's called bait and switch."
Rising health-care costs are also, in part, a result of a lack of technological advances made in the field — for example, the limited use of electronic medical record-keeping, the president said.
"It's the equivalent of the buggy and horse days, compared to other industries here in America," Bush said.
Bush said illegal immigration is a security, economic and human-rights issue that must be addressed. The president said he could support a temporary worker card that would allow immigrants to pass into the United States for a designated time frame to work jobs Americans won't take. He also noted that an additional 1,000 border patrol agents have been assigned to the southern U.S. border and more technology is being used to reduce illegal immigration.
But "I don't believe we ought to have amnesty — I don't think we ought to reward illegal behavior — there are plenty of people in line" to become legal, Bush said.
Kerry said Bush broke his 2000 election-year promise that he would reform the immigration system and said the borders are more porous now than they were before Sept. 11, 2001. He voiced support for a guest worker program, the need to crack down on hiring illegal aliens and support for an earned legalization program for people who have steady jobs in this country, who pay taxes and whose children are American.
Kerry added that, if elected, he would help unite a country that he said Bush had polarized by making decisions such as taking the country to war in Iraq and holding "secret meetings" in the White House with special interest groups.
"These are dangerous times. I believe I offer tested, strong leadership that can calm the waters of the troubled world," Kerry said. "We can reach higher, I believe we can do better."
For his part, Bush said it's not unusual for the country to be divided during an election year. He added, "My biggest disappointment in Washington is how partisan the town is."
This country has been through a lot since he took office, the president said, given the Sept. 11 attacks, a recession early in his term and corporate scandals. But, the president vowed that if he's sent back to the White House, over the next four years he'll make sure the economy continues to grow and health care will become more affordable and available. He also said he's the right man to lead the country in defeating terrorism.
"My hope for America is a prosperous America, a hopeful America and a safer world," the president said.