ST. LOUIS Friday night’s presidential debate in St. Louis opened up the dialogue to issues like health care, imported drugs and the environment. But the discussion started right where the last debate left off, with the war in Iraq.
Opening the debate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., attacked Republican President George W. Bush for using his campaign as a “weapon of mass deception,” in painting the senator as wishy-washy on the Iraq war.
He said Bush failed to enlist enough help from other nations before going to war.
“I would have brought our allies to our side,” Kerry said. “I would have fought to make certain our troops had everybody possible to help them win the mission.”
Bush responded by saying Kerry’s position on the war would make him unlikely to garner support from other countries.
“Nobody is going to follow somebody who doesn’t believe we can succeed and with somebody who says that the war where we are is a mistake,” Bush said.
After the debate, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, said the debate’s initial focus on the war showed how important it was to both campaigns.
“We’re losing lives, we’re sacrificing lives, but it’s an important mission,” Bartlett said.
The debate featured a town-hall format where the candidates took questions from audience members who were seated in a semicircle around Bush and Kerry. The audience members were selected from the St. Louis area and were described as uncommitted with some leaning towards Bush or Kerry, according to a release from the commission that oversees the debates.
Security was tight before and after the debate. Either a student ID or press pass was required to gain access to the Washington University campus Friday. During the day, some roads around the university were closed as the candidates’ motorcades arrived. St. Louis city and county police officers patrolled the Washington University campus as local students strolled the university’s sidewalks and jockeyed for position in television camera shots.
When the debate turned to health care, Kerry said medical costs have risen steeply during the Bush years.
“Your premiums are going up. You’ve gone up, in Missouri, about $3,500,” Kerry said.
“I have a plan to lower the cost of health care for you,” he said. “I have a plan to cover all children. I have a plan to let you buy into the same health care senators and congressmen give themselves.”
Both candidates said they supported medical liability reform. In addressing the issue, Bush criticized Kerry for failing to vote on a bill in the Senate.
“First, he says he’s for medical liability reform, particularly for OB/GYNs,” Bush said. “There’s a bill on the floor of the United States Senate that he could have showed up and voted for if he’s so much for it.”
Addressing Bush, Missourian John Horstman questioned why the president did not make cheaper Canadian drugs available in the U.S.
“I just want to make sure they’re safe,” Bush said. “When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn’t kill you.”
Kerry said he supported importing Canadian drugs.
“We’re not talking about Third World drugs,” he said. “We’re talking about drugs made right here in the United States of America that have American brand names on them and American bottles.”
One questioner asked Bush what his administration has done to improve the environment.
Bush said the air is cleaner now than when he took office, and he said his forest policies are protecting America’s woodlands.
“What happens in those forests, because of lousy federal policy, is they’re not harvested. They’re not taken care of. And as a result, they’re like tinderboxes,” Bush said.
Kerry said Bush’s environmental policies were detrimental to air quality.
“If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner than it is if you pass the Clear Skies act,” Kerry said. “We’re going backwards.”
During the debate, Kerry made several references to Missouri, underscoring the state’s importance as the Nov. 2 election approaches.
After the debate, former U.S. Senator and Missouri first lady, Jean Carnahan, praised Kerry, who she called Lincoln-esque.
“He’s going to get us through Iraq and then he’s going to come back and work on the domestic issues,” Carnahan said.
The St. Louis debate was more casual than Bush and Kerry’s last debate. Both candidates moved freely across the stage and spoke directly to the audience when answering questions.
The debate also featured some lighter moments. After hearing Kerry speak badly of Bush’s nuclear policy, Bush responded by saying, “That answer almost made me want to scowl.”
It was reference to Bush’s facial expressions during the previous debate that some people cited as a reason for Kerry’s more favorable reviews after that contest.
Members of the media watched the debate on television from a gymnasium adjacent to the room where the debate was taking place. As Bush and Kerry sparred over the issues in that room, their supporters on the other side of the wall deluged news reporters with partisan propaganda.
Following the release of the U.S. job growth data for September, Bush supporters swept through the gymnasium with hand-outs showing the economy in a positive light. But an hour later, Kerry supporters responded by distributing paper-sunglasses with red lenses and a handout saying Bush’s view on the economy comes through, “rose colored glasses.”