After six hours of jabs, uppercuts and roundhouses, the presidential-debate season came to a close Wednesday night in Tempe, Arizona — but not before President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry again butted heads over which man is better suited to lead the nation.
Unlike the two previous sessions, this time Iraq took a back seat to domestic issues, in particular the economy, health care and Social Security reform.
Still, the candidates couldn't help but exchange a few quick barbs over national security before serving up generous portions of meat-and-potato economic policies to viewers at home.
Responding to a question about whether the U.S. is safer now than prior to the attacks of September 11, Kerry quickly went on the offensive.
"The measure is not, 'Are we safer?' The measure is, 'Are we as safe as we ought to be?' " he said before lambasting the president for cutting funding for law-enforcement programs. A few moments later, Kerry quoted Bush as saying that he did not spend time worrying about Osama bin Laden.
Adopting a tone of surprise and exasperation, the president quickly replied, "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations."
In fact, the president did make such a comment during a press conference at the White House on March 13, 2002, according to The Washington Post and videotape aired by CNN. Asked about the hunt for bin Laden, he replied, "You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, we haven't heard much from him ... And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I — I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
But on several occasions Kerry also lost track of the facts. As he charged the president with failing to lead on civil-rights issues, Kerry said that Bush had never met with the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Capitol Hill's delegation of African-American House members. Bush quickly shot back that the he had met with the group, and in fact he did so during the first week of his administration.
Throughout much of the campaign, Bush has sought to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper whose positions on issues bend with the political winds. But in the past two weeks, his line of attack has shifted subtly. With a revised campaign stump speech and a slew of hard-edged television ads, the Bush campaign now focuses on what it describes as Kerry's record as an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal.
On Wednesday, the president continued with that tactic.
"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."
On the campaign trail and in prior debates, Kerry has frequently accused the president of not being a straight shooter. On Wednesday, he continued, saying Bush lacked credibility on domestic issues, just as he did on Iraq.
"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. Kerry went on to point out that the record budget surpluses inherited by the Bush administration have become record deficits in three-and-a-half years.
The candidates clashed extensively over health care. Kerry charged that under Bush's watch an additional 5 million Americans are now without coverage of any kind. Bush returned fire, arguing that Kerry's proposed plan to fix the system would amount to expensive government-managed care that would limit patient choice.
The two also squabbled over funding for higher education. Kerry slammed Bush for reducing funding for the popular Pell Grant and Perkins Loan Program used by students nationwide to cover the cost of higher education.
Bush shot back, "We've increased Pell Grants by a million students. That's a fact."
Kerry acknowledged that there are now more Pell Grant recipients, but attributed it to declining family incomes. Only students from comparatively low-income homes can qualify for the program. And he said the president had reneged on a promise to increase Pell Grants to a maximum of $5,100. Currently, the grants for incoming freshmen top out at $4,050.
On the issue of Social Security reform, the president argued the system should be reformed to allow young people to put a portion of their earnings into private savings accounts, rather than into the overall Social Security pool.
"I understand that they need to get better rates of return than the rates of return being given in the current Social Security trust," he said.
But the president declined to estimate how much such accounts would cost the federal government to establish, or how the government might cover the shortfall such a change would cause. Currently, funds that workers pay into the pool are used immediately to cover benefits paid out to retirees. Experts say the bulk of the baby-boom generation will begin to retire in 2008 and put unprecedented pressure on the current Social Security system.
Coming into the debates, pundits speculated the face-offs would play a crucial role in shaping the 2004 campaign. And the events did not disappoint.
Now that they've come and gone, the inevitable question is: Who won?
Prior to the first face-off in Miami on September 30, Kerry's campaign appeared unable to get any traction. On the campaign trail, the candidate struggled to find a consistent theme that resonated with voters. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, he shook up his campaign staff by bringing in a cadre of former Clinton advisors. Most national polls at the time showed the Massachusetts senator trailing Bush by five to 10 points.
But in the first debate, Kerry re-introduced himself to the American public by turning in a cool, confident performance. In contrast, the president looked by turns nervous, angry and fidgety.
Within a week, Kerry had pulled into a dead heat in most national polls. Perhaps more importantly in a year when voter turnout may decide the race, he appeared to re-energize his base of supporters, who have always been at least as anti-Bush as they are pro-Kerry. And the race tightened up in key battleground states.
In the second debate, held on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis on October 8, Bush regained his footing by deftly handling pointed questions from a crowd of undecided voters. Kerry continued to hold his own, and by most accounts the debate was a draw.
The final debate also appeared to produce no clear-cut winner, though several polls conducted by the national networks immediately afterward suggested the public thought Kerry edged out Bush by a slight margin.
It remains far from clear whether his performance will propel Kerry ahead of the president and into the White House, however.
Still, the debates did produce one clear winner: democracy.
Though frequently contentious and combative, the events were extremely informative for viewers. Even the strict format that limited answers to two minutes seemed to serve the public well, because it forced the candidates to stay on point. Absent from the discussion: charges about what each candidate did or did not do during the Vietnam era 30 years ago.
It's hard to imagine that any voter could have sat through the showdowns and not come away with a better understanding of where each candidate hopes to lead the nation.
Now, it's back to the campaign trail, where both candidates will use every last ounce of powder left in their arsenals before Election Day, two-and-a-half weeks from now. Interest in the race will no doubt remain intense. But no event will offer the public quite as much concentrated information about the important choice they face as the debates have.
Luckily, for any voter still unsure where they stand, the events can be watched on tape anytime day or night at www.c-span.org.