Candidates grapple over taxes, gun control and abortion


Thursday, October 14th 2004, 6:32 am
By: News On 6


TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) _ President Bush and rival John Kerry vaulted into the home stretch of the race for the White House by trading blows on taxes, gun control, abortion and jobs, striving in their final debate to cement impressions in voters' minds.

The Democrat cast himself as champion of the little guy and Bush the guardian of the wealthy, branding the president as reckless with the federal budget and with the use of American force. Bush labeled Kerry a carping liberal with questionable credibility, a do-nothing senator with an insatiable appetite for tax dollars.

For undecided voters, Wednesday night's faceoff was a chance to comparison-shop. For Bush and Kerry, it was a final side-by-side pitch before they dashed off on punishing late-campaign travel. With 19 days left, both men were heading to the hotly contested state of Nevada on Thursday, then splitting off, Bush to Oregon and Kerry to Iowa.

Kerry was addressing AARP, a lobbying group for people over 50 that was once known as the American Association of Retired Persons, in Las Vegas.

Bush also planned to be in Nevada on Thursday, but was skipping the influential group's convention in favor of three re-election rallies with supporters. First lady Laura Bush was to address AARP.

In the debate, Kerry and Bush returned again and again to the question of federal spending and deficits, a subject that yielded one of their sharpest exchanges.

``You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank,'' Bush said, charging that Kerry had voted to exceed budget ceilings 277 times.

``Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country,'' Kerry said. ``This president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see.''

The debate ranged over virtually the entire landscape of domestic issues: jobs, the minimum wage, education, affirmative action, immigration, Social Security, health care, gay marriage.

It exposed deep differences.

_Kerry said a hike in the minimum wage to $7 an hour is ``long overdue,'' and blamed Republican congressional leadership for preventing a vote on it. Bush mentioned a Republican senator's minimum wage plan that he said he had supported.

_On the assault weapons ban that expired last month, Kerry said it was a ``failure of presidential leadership'' that Bush had taken no concrete action to renew the law. Kerry said the law's expiration could help put more guns in the hands of terrorists and criminals. Bush said background checks at gun shows and vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws were the way to keep deadly weapons off the streets.

_On affirmative action, Kerry said he opposes quotas but the nation has not moved far enough along to eliminate affirmative action. Bush also opposes quotas, but said he supports programs that help low- and middle-income families fund college, or small businesses get loans.

_Kerry said he would not appoint judges who would overturn the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion rights decision of Roe v. Wade. Bush said he had no issue test for judges, and reiterated his support for the ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.

The last of the three debates offered fewer fireworks and more statistics than the two previous encounters, at times sounding like a dry dissertation on the bureaucracy. Each candidate threw out a dizzying array of figures and an alphabet soup of government acronyms.

Bush seemed to find his stride after two debates that most viewers and analysts thought he lost. He stifled most of the facial expressions that marred his first performance, ending each answer with a smile, though the camera occasionally captured him dropping it abruptly a few seconds later. After letting his voice rise to a shout during the second debate, Bush toned it down, speaking more softly.

Kerry was seen as the winner in two of three post-debate polls, while the third found the two tied.

Pamela Russell, a 55-year-old undecided retiree from Detroit, said Kerry addressed issues dear to her _ uneven quality of schools and abortion rights.

``I was with Kerry most of the night,'' she said.

Dennis West of Redondo Beach, Calif., a 32-year-old Republican who works in the defense industry, said he remained inclined toward Bush.

``I'm afraid the Democrat is a little too liberal and I could be looking for a job,'' West said. ``This is the first time I've ever voted for my job.''