Like dueling daytime talk-show hosts, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry fielded questions from an audience of undecided voters in St. Louis Friday in their second debate. On participants' minds: health care, the environment, stem-cell research, abortion, the deficit and taxes.
But it was the conflict in Iraq that was discussed most and produced several of the evening's sharpest clashes. As they do on the campaign trail, Kerry and Bush each used the issue to raise doubts about the other's character.
In response to the first question of the night, posed by a woman who said her co-workers believed the Massachusetts senator is a flip-flopper, Kerry said, "The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception. And the result is that you've been bombarded with advertisements suggesting that I've changed a position on this or that or the other."
Responding a few minutes later, the president quipped, "I can see why people at your workplace think he changes positions a lot, because he does."
"He said he thought Saddam Hussein was a grave threat, and now he said it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Kerry seized on a report released earlier this week by the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, which concluded that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the war.
At one point, the Massachusetts senator pivoted to face his opponent directly. "He didn't have weapons of mass destruction, Mr. President," Kerry said pointedly, staring directly at the president seated less than 20 feet away. "And if we'd used smart diplomacy, we could have saved $200 billion and an invasion of Iraq. And right now, Osama bin Laden might be in jail or dead."
Bush responded that Kerry's criticism of the war would undermine relations with allies if he were elected. And he took a whack at Kerry's proposal to hold an international summit of world leaders on Iraq. "What is he going to say to those who show up to the summit? 'Join me in the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place'?" asked Bush.
Roughly 30 minutes into the debate, a young voter asked the president if he planned to reinstitute a military draft.
"I hear there are rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft. We're not going to have a draft. Period. The all-volunteer army works," Bush said. "We're not going to have a draft so long as I am president."
Kerry said he, too, opposed a draft but criticized Bush for keeping National Guard and Reserve troops overseas on extended tours. "You've got a backdoor draft right now," he said, adding that as president he would add 40,000 active-duty volunteer troops to the armed forces.
Earlier this week, a bill that would have required all men and women ages 18-26 to serve at least two years of military or civilian service was killed in the House of Representatives (see "Republicans Vote Down Draft Bill In Hopes Of Ending Rumors").
Each of the 120 voters who participated submitted questions before the event. Moderator Charles Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning America" program then selected the participants, each of whom asked thoughtful, well-prepared questions. The result was a heated but substantive debate in which the attacks were pointed but largely issue-based.
The two candidates perched on tall chairs and frequently roamed across the set's red carpet to interact directly with participants throughout the 90-minute encounter.
One audience member asked President Bush to describe who he would appoint to the Supreme Court should there be a vacancy during the next four years, a likely scenario given that four of the nine justices are over the age of 70. Two are 80 or older.
Bush declined to name those he might consider, instead focusing on judges that would have no shot at making the high court in his administration. In the past, the president has criticized judges whom he says "legislate from the bench," especially on the issue of gay marriage.
"I would pick somebody who would not allow their personal opinion to get in the way of the law," he said. "I would pick somebody who would strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States."
Kerry said the president had previously expressed admiration for Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the most conservative on the bench.
"So you get a pretty good sense of where he's heading if he were to appoint somebody," said Kerry, adding he would seek to choose a justice who would protect abortion rights, among other things.
Later, the issue of abortion came up again as an audience member asked Kerry what he would say to someone who believes abortion is murder and that federal funds should not go to any abortion-related programs.
Kerry used the question as a jumping-off point to discuss his faith (he is Catholic) before addressing it a bit more directly.
"You have to afford people their constitutional rights," he said. "And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don't deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the Constitution affords them if they can't afford it otherwise."
A moment later, the president responded tartly, "I'm trying to decipher that."
Bush noted that he signed the so-called partial-birth abortion ban outlawing a procedure critics say is barbaric. Opponents of the legislation argued the procedure is often used to save the life of the mother.
Bush also noted that he supports parental-notification laws that require minors to inform parents or guardians that they have had an abortion.
In his rebuttal, Kerry indicated he opposes parental notification.
"I'm not going to require a 16- or 17-year-old kid who's been raped by her father and who's pregnant to have to notify her father," he said, later adding, "It's never quite as simple as the president wants you to believe."
The two candidates also clashed several times on fiscal policy, with the president charging that Kerry would be a reckless tax-and-spender who proposes $2.2 trillion in government expenditures. Kerry responded that the president and the Republican Congress were responsible for adding more debt to the United States in four years than every president from George Washington to Ronald Reagan combined.
At one point, an audience member asked Kerry if he could pledge that as president he would not raise taxes on those earning $200,000 a year or less.
"Absolutely," said Kerry, turning to face viewers at home directly. "I am not going to raise taxes."
The first President Bush made a similar promise when he ran for the Oval Office in 1988 when he said, "Read my lips: no new taxes." Ultimately, the president did raise taxes and the statement haunted him repeatedly during his failed re-election bid in 1992.
The third and final presidential debate is scheduled for Wednesday on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe. The subject will be domestic policy.
This story was updated at 9:20 a.m. ET on 10.9.04.