The second presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry was framed by lingering questions on Iraq and the economy.
The debate had no clear winner, with both men trading combative barbs for almost two hours on Iraq, health care, the economy and stem cell research.
There was a clear distinction drawn from the formal and polite tone of the first debate, in which Sen. Kerry was widely considered the winner.
The audience was composed of 140 undecided voters selected by the Gallup Poll Organization. Each member of the audience was asked to write down two questions for the candidates, one for the President Bush, the other for Sen. Kerry. The debate moderator, Charles Gibson of ABC News, chose which questions would be asked.
The debate began with a question for Bush about the Duelfer report.
The recently released 1,000-page report said weapons of mass destruction had not existed in Iraq for more than a decade prior to the latest American invasion of Iraq.
Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq, despite repeated reports there were no weapons of mass destruction, by saying he believed Saddam Hussein intended to restart his weapons programs.
"Saddam Hussein was a unique threat, and the world is better off without him in power," Bush said.
Bush attacked Kerry's leadership skills, saying Kerry's statements on Iraq serve only to demoralize troops and allies.
"I don't see how you can win in Iraq if you don't believe we should be there in the first place. I don't see how you can lead troops if you say it's the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time," Bush said.
Kerry defended his position on Iraq by saying he has supported a tough stance against Hussein.
"I always believed he (Hussein) was a threat," Kerry said. "I would have used that authority wisely, not rushed to war without a plan to win the peace."
Kerry told the audience Bush was trying to distract voters from his administration's failures.
"The president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception." Kerry said.
Kerry said defended his criticisms of the Iraq war, stating Osama bin Laden is the true threat to the safety and security of the United States. Kerry told the audience that the commitment to Iraq is removing troops and resources from hunting bin Laden.
"The right war was Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan. That was the right place. And the right time was Tora Bora, when we had him cornered in the mountains," Kerry said.
Bush touted his administration's success in pursuing al-Qaida.
"Of course, we're going to find Osama bin Laden. We've already captured 75 percent of his people, and we're on the hunt for him," Bush said.
The discussion of the Bush administration unilaterally going into Iraq elicited a passionate response from Bush. Seemingly eager to respond, Bush jumped off his stool and charged Gibson's desk, violating one of the rules of the debate. Both men agreed not to approach the audience or the moderator.
"You tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Tony Blair we're going alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone," Bush said.
Kerry also broke some of the rule of the debate. Both men agreed not to make any campaign promises during the debate. But when pressed to defend how his administration would pay for his proposed programs, Kerry said he would not raise taxes on families earning less than $200,000 a year during his first term.
"I am not going to raise taxes," Kerry said.
Kerry joked there would only be three people in the room who would be affected by his tax increase on those earning more than $200,000 a year.
"I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected: the president, me and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too." Kerry said.
Kerry accused the Bush administration of mismanaging the economy, blaming Bush for turning a $5.6 trillion surplus into a $2.6 trillion deficit and losing 1.6 million jobs.
Kerry hinted the tax cuts offered by the Bush administration were political favors rather than economic incentives to jump-start the economy.
"We wanted a tax cut to kick the economy into gear. Do you know what he presented us with? A $25 billion giveaway to the biggest corporations in America, including a $254 million refund check to Enron," Kerry said.
Bush said there were several reasons for slow economic progress, which he blamed on the previous administration.
"You might remember the stock market started to decline dramatically six months before I came to office, and then the bubble of the 1990s popped," Bush said.
Bush also said the war on terror was partially to blame for a large deficit.
"Secondly, we're at war. And I'm going to spend what it takes to win the war," Bush said.
Bush criticized Kerry's plan to raise taxes on those earning over $ 200,000 a year. Bush said it would hurt 900,000 small businesses.
"Seventy percent of the new jobs in America are created by small businesses," Bush said.
Kerry, ready for Bush's criticisms, said Bush could be considered a small business owner.
Kerry made an obscure reference to Bush's 2001 tax return, where Bush listed himself as a partial owner of a lumber company.
"The president got $84 from a timber company that (he) owns, and he's counted as a small business." Kerry said.
Bush seemed unsure to what Kerry was referring to.
"I own a timber company?" Bush said. "That's news to me."
Bush turned to Gibson and joked, "Need some wood?"
The final presidential debate will be in Tempe on Wednesday in Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium at 6 p.m The debate will focus on domestic policy issues.