ST. LOUIS (AP) _ A lackluster unemployment report and fresh questions about President Bush's rationale for invading Iraq frame the second face-to-face encounter Friday night between Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
Only the debate's moderator and the 15 to 20 people chosen to ask questions know what topics will be raised during the 90-minute town-hall session at Washington University.
Bush goes into the debate on the defensive, but aides hope the more casual format will play to his strengths as a campaigner. Seeking to avoid a repeat of the scowls that contributed to negative reaction to his appearance in the first prime-time matchup, the president has watched tapes of the encounter.
In the hours leading up to debate, Bush huddled with top aides at the home of a St. Louis Cardinals owner where he is staying _ and went fishing in the rain to relax.
Kerry, criticized as times for what some call a stiff and aloof manner, will try to build on the momentum he gained after favorable impressions of his performance at the Miami debate. The Massachusetts senator holds a slight lead nationally over Bush in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Thursday, reversing Bush's advantage from mid-September.
Although voters cite Iraq as a major concern, the economy consistently ranks at the top. The unemployment report _ the last to be released before Election Day _ provided fresh fodder for the campaigns. Unemployment held steady at 5.4 percent but job creation was lower than expected.
Bush cast the addition of 96,000 jobs as proof his tax cuts have bolstered the jobs market and the economy overall while Kerry pointed out that the country has seen a net job loss under the Bush administration, a first since the Depression.
``The president's policies are working to create jobs and keep the economy moving forward, but there is still more work to do,'' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. Bush's campaign unveiled an advertisement for national cable networks that touts ``nearly 2 million jobs in just over a year.''
Kerry called the number ``disappointing'' and contended that even the jobs that have been created under Bush pay less and offer fewer benefits than those that have been lost. ``The president does not seem to understand how many middle-class families are being squeezed by falling incomes and spiraling health care, tuition and energy costs,'' he said in a statement.
Hard sparring over Iraq on the eve of the debate also offered a preview of the discussion to come.
A final report from the chief U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq concluded that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, had no programs to make either them or nuclear bombs, and had little ability _ or immediate plans _ to revive those programs.
The findings contradicted Bush's main rationale for going to war, and Kerry charged the commander in chief with purposely exaggerating the evidence in the run-up to the invasion. ``You don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact,'' Kerry said Thursday in Colorado.
Bush not only insisted that going to war was right, but turned the tables to say Kerry was the one not being candid.
The president dredged up Kerry remarks from two years ago in which the Massachusetts senator talked about the threat Saddam would pose if he possessed weapons of mass destruction. ``Just who's the one trying to mislead the American people?'' Bush said at a campaign rally in Wisconsin.
Kerry's campaign accused Bush of taking Kerry's quotes out of context to suit his own political purposes. Kerry spokesman Phil Singer noted that Bush failed to mention that, in his 2002 remarks, Kerry also cautioned against a rush to war and questioned whether the Bush administration was relying on the right reasons to threaten invasion.
Their third and final debate is Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., and will focus on economic and domestic policy.