Dead even in polls, rivals focus on domestic issues

As Kerry makes gains, Bush campaigns in Colorado, Arizona

Election 2004

October 13, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — THIRD PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE

9 p.m. EDT on cable news and broadcast outlets

WASHINGTON - The dead-even presidential contest enters its final phase tonight as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry square off over domestic issues in their third and last debate.

With less than three weeks until Election Day, the 9 p.m. forum at Arizona State University is the only chance left for the candidates to make their cases before a huge national audience. Their first two encounters, the most-watched White House debates since 1992, reached 62.5 million and 47 million viewers, respectively, according to Neilsen Media Research.

Those matchups have shifted the direction of the race to the Democratic challenger's advantage. Going into the debates two weeks ago, Bush held a clear lead over Kerry, but the contest is now a statistical dead heat in the national polls.

Post-debate opinion surveys indicated that voters credited the Massachusetts senator with doing a better job in the debates than Bush, though by a smaller margin in their second encounter. That has put added pressure on the president to rebound tonight, according to Kerry aides.

"We cannot remember an incumbent who lost three consecutive debates in the minds of the public and then went on to victory," Kerry spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters in a conference call. "I think the stakes are high for both [candidates] but increasingly higher for the president."

Unlike Kerry, who spent the day in debate rehearsals with aides, the president surfaced for campaign events in Colorado and Arizona.

Colorado has emerged late in the campaign as an unexpectedly close contest. An initiative on the ballot, which stands a reasonable chance of being approved, could lead to a proportional electoral-vote split in the state, which Bush carried in 2000. All but two states, Maine and Nebraska, apportion their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis.

Bush on the attack

At a Colorado Springs rally, Bush signaled his likely strategy going into tonight's debate, unleashing a full-throated attack on Kerry as a big-government liberal who is out of the mainstream on health care, taxes and the war on terror.

"Much as he's tried to obscure it, on issue after issue, my opponent has showed why he earned his ranking as the most liberal member of the United States Senate," Bush said, prompting a chorus of boos from supporters.

Bush said that after listening to Kerry's "litany of complaints" and "dour pessimism, it took all I could do not to make a face." The self-deprecating remark was another reference to Bush's poor performance in the first debate, which put a damper on his candidacy.

The latest polls in battleground states show the contest just as close as national surveys.

New polling in key Midwestern states by the Chicago Tribune, released last night, show the candidates in a statistical dead heat in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Iowa.

Besides erasing Bush's lead over Kerry, the earlier debates have altered the way that voters view each man personally, again to the senator's advantage. Going into the first debate, Bush had done an effective job of driving up negative attitudes toward his rival, with more voters viewing Kerry unfavorably than favorably, according to the polls.

Making an impression

But favorable impressions of the Massachusetts senator now slightly outweigh unfavorable ones, according to a new national survey, released last night by The Washington Post. The poll also showed that Bush's unfavorable ratings have crept up slightly since the first debate, reducing but not eliminating the president's likability advantage in the campaign.

Kerry aides pointed to that trend in noting that Bush was introduced at yesterday's rally by his daughter, Jenna, while his wife, Laura, is scheduled to be interviewed on network television this morning. According to the Kerry strategists, the Bush camp is using the president's family members to try to soften the increasingly negative views of Bush, which they said were a byproduct of the president's stepped-up attacks on Kerry.

The topic of tonight's debate, domestic issues, would seem to favor the challenger, because Bush derives his strongest advantage in the race from voters who say he would do a better job of handling America's fight against terrorism. Kerry, surveys show, holds an edge over Bush on domestic issues such as the environment, health care, Social Security and balancing the budget.

However, in last Friday's second debate, in St. Louis, the president seemed to have his best moments when the questions turned to domestic issues, including abortion, lawsuit reform and health care, many analysts said. Kerry, at the same time, was less effective on the environment and social issues than he was on foreign policy.

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