A last clash on jobs, taxes, health

The debates Face-off of sunny Bush, serious Kerry is virtual tie

Analysis

Election 2004

The debates

October 14, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Perhaps fittingly, for a campaign that's essentially tied, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry held each other off in their third and final debate last night.

Bush, his lead in the polls erased since the debates began, forcefully defended the record of his presidency as he turned in his strongest showing of the series.

Kerry, who has gained stature and support through his debate performances, was substantive and, at times, eloquent. But he was unable to establish a clear advantage over Bush, as he had in their earlier confrontations.

For two opposing candidates in a "bitterly divided" time, as Bush described it last night, they have much in common. Sons of privileged Eastern families, they attended the same college and were even members of the same elite club there.

On stage last night at Arizona State University, they showed up in identical political attire: dark business suits and red power ties. But beyond the superficial similarities, they were a study in contrasts.

The sunny personality that has won Bush votes and boosted his popularity over the years made a surprise comeback. Smiling all the way, he repeatedly attacked Kerry's record as a senator and his statements as a candidate, as the president sought to convince voters that the Democrat is out of the mainstream.

Kerry, serious and businesslike, seldom smiled. Particularly in comparison with Bush, his demeanor was much closer to the studious, cerebral style for which he is known.

Both men directed their remarks, at various times, to key voter groups, either in their base or in that dwindling band in the middle that holds the key to the Nov. 2 election, including women, veterans, Roman Catholics, seniors, young people and gun owners.

No glaring gaffes

There were no glaring mistakes, though Bush was clearly wrong when he said Kerry had exaggerated when he quoted the president as having said in 2002 that he wasn't "that concerned" about Osama bin Laden. Bush did, in fact, make that statement, and the Kerry campaign was quick to point that out to reporters last night.

Meeting their goals

Each man met the goals his strategists had set for him. Bush repeatedly sought to make Kerry the focus of attention, rather than himself, with the aim of cutting the challenger down a notch in the process.

Bush put Kerry on the defensive over his liberal voting record in the Senate, repeatedly accusing his opponent of favoring tax increases and big-spending government programs.

Bush fell back on the reliable Republican argument, which has worked in past campaigns, that Kerry would expand the government's reach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said. "As a matter of fact, your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."

Kerry counterattacked over Bush's record on jobs, an issue of particular importance in several swing states, including Ohio, which has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs since Bush took office.

Bush is the first president in more than 70 years to face the voters after the country suffered a net loss of jobs since he took office.

"Guess what, America? The wages of Americans have gone down," said Kerry. "The jobs that are being created in Arizona right now are paying about $13,700 less than the jobs that we're losing. And the president just walks on by this problem."

Unexpected curves

Some of the best, and most revealing, moments were in response to questions from moderator Bob Schieffer that were either softballs or curveballs.

Bush seemed caught short when asked whether he believed homosexuality was a choice.

"You know, Bob, I don't know. I just don't know," responded Bush. He quickly added that it was important "to treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity," an answer designed to reassure moderate voters who, polls show, are turned off by hard-line social conservatism.

Kerry, treading a similar, delicate path, said that he didn't think homosexuality is a choice and that "we're all God's children." Then he pointed out that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, is a lesbian, and noted that he, like Bush, opposes gay marriage.

At several points, Kerry attempted to compete with Bush for support from religious voters who like the president's open appeals to people of faith. He let voters know he's a practicing Catholic, then quickly reassured the country that he wouldn't be ruled by his religion, if elected, by quoting the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

Kerry also made several references to the Bible, at one point quoting a line from a New Testament letter that "faith without works is dead."

Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, has said the president's campaign needs to bring 3 million more conservative Christians to the polls next month.

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