October 14, 2004
TEMPE - Presidential rivals George Bush and John Kerry laid out plans they claimed would make Americans safer, healthier and smarter as they clashed in their final face-to-face showdown Wednesday in Tempe.
The two also tossed out charges that their opponent's records are dubious, their plans flawed or their proposals too costly.
Bush said Kerry has a long history of voting for tax increases and that he opposed recent tax cuts that benefitted middle-class families.
“There's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank,” Bush said of Kerry.
Kerry responded that Bush is the last person who should lecture on fiscal responsibility. Since the president took office, what had been projected to be a $5.6 trillion federal budget surplus has turned into a deficit, Kerry said.
“Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order,” said Kerry, referring to an HBO television series about a mob family.
The presidential debate in Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University was both lively and substantive as the candidates sparred over issues ranging from homeland security to school funding.
The Tempe debate could prove the pivotal point in the election with virtually every national poll showing the race is deadlocked. Kerry had been lagging in the polls through the summer, but his campaign was reinvigorated after a poor performance by Bush in the first debate Sept. 30.
Neither candidate made any obvious blunders Wednesday, and their respective campaigns were quick to claim victory after the debate.
Kerry went out of his way to sprinkle statistics specific to Arizona throughout his remarks. There are 223,000 children in Arizona without health insurance, Kerry said. Since Bush took office, 82,000 Arizonans have lost their health insurance, he said.
Bush did not challenge Kerry's Arizona statistics or cite any of his own.
Further playing to the home crowd, Kerry invoked the name of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.ona, three times. Kerry said he has worked closely with McCain to cut wasteful spending.
Bush responded that McCain is supporting the president's reelection. "My opponent keeps mentioning John McCain and I'm glad he did," Bush said.
"John McCain is for me for president because he understands I have the right view in winning the war on terror."
Sharp differences emerged soon after the debate on domestic policy began. Kerry praised Bush for his leadership in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he charged the president squandered the sense of national unity at home and international support.
America remains vulnerable to terrorists, Kerry said. Ports have not been secured. Cargo is not being adequately checked. The border is too porous and police and firefighters are losing their jobs because Bush opposes a federal program to help fund them, Kerry said.
“We can do a better job of homeland security," Kerry said in answer to the debate's opening question, setting a confrontational tone that extended for the next 90 minutes. "I can do a better job of waging a smarter, more effective war on terror and guarantee that we will go after the terrorists. I will hunt them down and we'll kill them, we'll capture them. We'll do whatever is necessary to be safe.”
But Bush said he did follow through with necessary steps in the wake of the 2001 attacks, and that the United States will be safer still “if we stay on the offense against the terrorists.”
Since the 2001 attacks, three-fourths of the al-Qaida terror network responsible has been hunted down, Bush said. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had given safe harbor to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, has been toppled and the nation is converting to a free society, the president added.
Kerry was quick to point out that bin Laden has not been caught.
Bush also challenged Kerry's understanding of the terrorist threat, citing the Democrat's statement in a recent magazine interview.
“My opponent just this weekend talked about how terrorism could be reduced to a nuisance, comparing it to prostitution, illegal gambling,” Bush said. “I think that attitude and that point of view is dangerous.”
Warring statistics made their way into the discussion throughout the debate. Kerry said that by the end of Bush's term the nation's economy will have lost 1.6 million jobs. Kerry said he will reverse that trend by restoring fiscal discipline to the federal budget, but did not lay out specifics.
Bush said he inherited an economy in decline, and that the nation's financial woes were aggravated by corporate scandals and the terrorist attacks. The tax cuts he pressed stimulated economic growth while putting more money into the hands of Americans, Bush said.
Bush also directly challenged Kerry on an assertion that funding for college education has been cut under the president's tenure. Kerry said the Bush administration has cut Pell grants, which many students rely on to pay for college.
That's wrong, Bush said.
“We've increased Pell grants by a million students,” Bush said. “That's a fact.”
Kerry later conceded spending on the federal grants has gone up, but only because there are more poor people who qualify for them.
Aside from the plans themselves, the two candidates tangled on how they would pay for their proposals.
Bush said Kerry has made more than $2 trillion worth of campaign promises he can't keep, and would turn to taxing the middle class to pay for them.
“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 said early in the debate. “It's an empty promise. It's called bait and switch.”
Kerry responded that he will pay for all of his initiatives by scrapping recent tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, those making more than $200,000 annually. “Every plan that I have laid out. . . I've shown exactly how I'm going to pay for,” Kerry said. “We start by rolling back George Bush's unaffordable tax cut for the wealthiest people.”