President George Bush delivered a combative defence of his policies last night as he went head-to-head in a second live debate with his election challenger John Kerry.
The 90-minute televised encounter was vital for Mr Bush, after his lacklustre performance in their first debate last week.
Mr Bush came out fighting, accusing Senator Kerry of planning to “tax everybody”.
At one point Mr Bush cut off the moderator to drive home his point that America was not alone in Iraq, as Mr Kerry suggested.
With less than four weeks to go before the November 2 election the two men are level-pegging in the polls.
The latest survey by Time Magazine found that Mr Kerry had the backing of 47% of likely voters and Mr Bush had 45%.
The latest Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today showed the two men in a dead heat, with each polling at 49% among likely voters.
Mr Bush told the audience at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, that September 11 had changed the way the US had to look at the world.
“After 9/11 we had to look at the world differently. I saw a a unique threat in Saddam Hussein,” he said.
“We thought he had weapons of mass destruction... he could give weapons of mass destruction to an organisation like al Qaida.”
He said diplomacy failed, despite his attempts to resolve the situation at the United Nations.
He added: “Iraq is going to be free and America will be better for it.”
And he said terror chief Osama bin Laden would one day be captured.
“Of course we’re going to find Osama bin Laden,” he said.
Mr Bush accepted that his decision to oust Saddam may have been unpopular.
“Taking Saddam Hussein out was unpopular but I made the decision because I thought it was in the right interests of our country,” he said.
Mr Kerry hit back saying: “The world is more dangerous today because the president did not make the right judgements.”
The Massachusetts Senator accused Mr Bush of failing to formulate a plan to bring stability to Iraq
He said: “The military’s job is to win the war. The president’s job is to win the peace.”
Mr Kerry said the dangers posed by Iran and North Korea had grown “while the president has been pre-occupied with Iraq where there was not a threat”.
Mr Bush replied: “He said he thought Saddam Hussein was a growing threat. Now he is saying it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
“You have got to be consistent when you’re the president, there’s a lot of pressures.”
He added that Mr Kerry was “naive and dangerous” to believe UN weapons inspectors could do their job, because Iraq was deceiving them.
Mr Bush addressed recent rumours that a second Bush Administration would re-instate the military draft.
“Forget all the talk about the draft. We are not going to have a draft as long as I am president. Period,” he said.
Mr Kerry said the military was over-extended, claiming that there was already a “back door” draft, in the call-up and extension or tours of duty for the National Guard.
Mr Bush got testy, cutting off mediator Charles Gibson, of ABC News, demanding to answer when Mr Kerry accused him of deciding to “go alone” in Iraq.
Mr Bush said there was a coalition in Iraq including troops from Britain and Poland.
The debate shifted to domestic policy and Mr Bush tried to portray Mr Kerry as a ’tax-and-spend liberal’.
He said Mr Kerry would need to raise taxes to pay for USD2.2 trillion.
“He is going to tax everybody here to fund his programmes. That’s just the reality,” he said.
“Of course he is going to raise your taxes.”
Mr Kerry replied: “I am not going to raise taxes,” adding that he had costed his proposals.
He said he had a “pay-as-you-go” policy which the president had abandoned.
The consequence of the president’s policies was that a USD5.6 trillion budget surplus had become a USD2.6 trillion deficit, he claimed.
Mr Kerry said he would only raise taxes for those earning over USD200,000 a year.
The debate also focused on the environment, with Mr Bush insisting that he was a “good steward of the land”.
He said the Kyoto protocol on reducing harmful emissions would have cost “a lot of jobs”.
Mr Kerry said Kyoto was “flawed” but added: “We just walked away from the work of 160 nations over 10 years.”
Unlike the first debate, members of the audience were allowed to ask pre-submitted question.
The candidates were asked about the controversial issue of stem cell research.
Mr Bush said some stem cells were already available for research which could one day, potentially lead to cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s. But he was opposed to using any more cells from embryos because of the ethical implications.
Mr Kerry was in favour of further research, saying he was a friend of paralysed former Superman star Christopher Reeve, who may one day be able to walk again thanks to such science.
Mr Bush side-stepped a question about whether he made any mistakes during his first term. He said he made some bad appointments but refused to name who.
He insisted that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq was not a mistake.
But Mr Kerry repeated his accusation that Mr Bush had made a “catastrophic mistake” in his handling of the situation in Iraq.
He accused Mr Bush of “rushing to war”. He said he would “reach out” to allies.
The next, and final, debate will be held early next Thursday in Arizona.