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Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Final Presidential Debate

(CBS/AP) With the debates behind them, President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry set out Thursday on a three-week campaign sprint to Election Day, concentrating their time and advertising on a dozen or so battleground states that will settle the election. Mr. Bush, who saw his lead in the polls evaporate in the three debates, struck an upbeat posture, telling reporters, "Get a smile on your faces, everybody – 19 days left." "My spirits are high," he said. "I'm enthusiastic about my chances." Mr. Bush played down negative reviews of his debate performances. "The pundits and the spinners, they all have their opinions but there's only one opinion that matters and that's the opinion of the American people on Nov. 2," he told reporters during a rare visit to the press cabin on Air Force One. "I feel great about where we are." But even the head of Mr. Bush's campaign conceded that Kerry picked up momentum, though he insisted it would prove fleeting. "I think it was temporary," Marc Racicot, the Bush campaign chairman, told reporters the morning after an intense final debate that sharpened differences over the war in Iraq, the economy, health care and abortion.

Kerry appeared Thursday before the AARP's national convention in Las Vegas, where he continued to assert that Mr. Bush was out of touch with the problems of average Americans. "The president just doesn’t seem to get it," Kerry said. "He can spin until he’s dizzy, but at the end of the day, who does he think the American people are going to believe? George Bush or their own eyes?" Kerry also had a retort to Mr. Bush's recent catch phrase, "You can run, but you can’t hide." Kerry said the Bush remark was really a quote from boxer Joe Louis. Kerry responded with a boxing quote of his own, from Muhammad Ali, who, Kerry said, once told George Foreman during a fight, "George, is that all you've got?" The Democratic Party was quick to publicize what it called a debate "threepeat" for Kerry, launching two videos that mocked Mr. Bush's performance. One shows the president talking about Osama bin Laden and telling White House reporters, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run," then denying during the debate that he had ever said it. The other video shows Mr. Bush laughing when asked about uninsured Americans.

A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters who watched Wednesday's debate named Kerry the winner by 39-25 percent over Mr. Bush, with 36 percent calling it a tie. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup post-debate poll also gave Kerry the edge by a margin of 52-39 percent. A third poll conducted by ABC News, showed the debate to be a draw, with 42 percent choosing Kerry and 41 percent picking the president.

For undecided voters, Wednesday night's debate in Tempe, Ariz., moderated by CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer, was a chance to comparison-shop. Kerry cast himself as champion of the little guy and Mr. Bush the guardian of the wealthy, branding the president as reckless with the federal budget and the use of American force. Mr. Bush labeled Kerry a do-nothing liberal senator with questionable credibility and an insatiable appetite for taxes. A question about federal spending and deficits yielded one of their sharpest exchanges. "You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank," Mr. Bush said, charging that Kerry had voted to exceed budget ceilings 277 times. "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," Kerry said. "This president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see."

Both candidates said they believe marriage should remain a union of a man and a woman but that gay Americans should be treated with respect. Kerry cited Mary Cheney, the vice president's openly gay daughter and an official in the campaign, as a lesbian who probably would say being gay is not a matter of choice. That drew a rebuke at a post-debate rally from Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife. She called Kerry "not a good man" and his reference to her daughter "a cheap and tawdry political trick." Kerry responded Thursday: "I love my daughters. They love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."

The president seemed to find his stride after two debates that most viewers and analysts thought he lost. He stifled most of the facial expressions that marred his first performance, ending each answer with a smile, though the camera occasionally captured him dropping it abruptly a few seconds later. After letting his voice rise to a shout during the second debate, Mr. Bush toned it down, speaking more softly. Racicot quarreled with polls showing Kerry won the final debate and described the president's performance as "extraordinarily good." Assessing all the debates combined, he said Kerry "did provide himself some temporary assistance with the first debate that got more leavened in the second debate and then began to dissipate at a whatever unknown rate with last night's performance. "I just think he was on his heels most of the night," he added. But Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe said the videos told the story. "They capture the essence of George Bush's four years in office. Four years of wrong choices which he won't even own up to," he told reporters in a conference call.

What I do is kick them in the pants with a diamond buckled shoe!
~~Aileen Mehle~~

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