President rebounds in Round 3

October 15, 2004|By Jules Witcover

TEMPE, Ariz. - Many voters who looked to the final Bush-Kerry debate to make their decision on how to cast their ballots Nov. 2 probably find themselves in a quandary.

After a rocky performance in the first debate and a somewhat improved one in the second, President Bush managed to muster his most straightforward and serious performance in the third to reassure many who had been disappointed in him.

Going into Wednesday night's debate, the pressure was on him to do exactly that.

With a discipline he had not shown before, the president largely controlled his temperament and battled his way back into the fray.

It was not that John Kerry's performance slipped. Once again, as in the first two debates, he was aggressive and sure-footed and conveyed strength of conviction, qualities that should reinforce his support. But circumstances cast him in the final debate almost as a secondary player simply because so much was at stake for the president.

As a whole, the third debate offered very little new in the exchanges. Both men threw around statistics that may or may not have been accurate. Mr. Kerry quotes them with a sense that he is familiar with them. Mr. Bush uses them essentially to attack Mr. Kerry as a do-nothing senator, as if he is reading them off a cue card.

But the statistics are almost beside the point in a fast-moving debate. The measurement of this debate's political impact was in the comfort level each candidate gave to the viewers, and Mr. Bush very likely improved his with a more sober and confident demeanor.

For the most part, but not entirely, the president minimized his cheap shots, though he again branded Mr. Kerry a "Massachusetts liberal" and invoked the name of Ted Kennedy as a dirty word - always guaranteed to please the Republican faithful.

He also rounded off the edges on some of his more conservative views. On gay marriage, for example, he emphasized the personal aspect of needing to "treat people with tolerance and respect and dignity" while holding fast to his support of a constitutional amendment to ban it. Mr. Kerry, opposed to the amendment, talked of the issue in terms of protecting individual rights against discrimination.

Mr. Bush elected to drum home his basic commitment to the conservative litany - lower taxes, smaller government, power to the individual, personal faith, freedom - as a way to dispel the harsher, even angry attitudes to which he resorted in the heat of the first two debates.

Mr. Kerry maintained his posture as the amiable but stern taskmaster, reminding viewers of the failures of the Bush foreign and domestic policies that have created the mess in Iraq, damaged respect for America in the world and left huge budget and jobs deficits at home.

On sheer debating points, it was hard to argue that Mr. Kerry did not once again succeed by keeping Mr. Bush on the defensive. But the president, obviously recognizing that he had to reinforce his image as a likable, caring figure, relied on his personal appeal as a regular guy.

The contrast was sharpest in the two men's responses to the final question, which was about what they had learned from their strong wives.

Mr. Bush unabashedly poured out his love for his wife and two daughters, ending by saying of first meeting Laura, "I guess you would say it was love at first sight."

Mr. Kerry joked about how lucky he and Mr. Bush were, adding, "And some would say me maybe more so than others," an obvious reference to the wealth of his wife, Teresa. Then he segued into a rather flat reference to his late mother.

On the personality meter, Mr. Bush clearly won that one.

With the three debates over, it can be said that Mr. Kerry has given American voters a much better sense of himself as a man of substance and seriousness. And after the third debate, the president appears to have regained his footing and his confidence as a tenacious defender of his conservative convictions, beyond simply attacking his foe as a Massachusetts liberal.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.