President Bush and John F. Kerry head toward their final debate on Wednesday night pursuing divergent strategies, with Bush seeking to discredit his rival on terrorism and taxes while rallying his conservative base, and with Kerry aiming at swing voters with stepped-up attention to domestic issues.
Energized by Friday's presidential debate, Bush and Kerry hit the campaign trail early yesterday. The president renewed his attacks on Kerry as he campaigned in Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota, saying the challenger's assertions that he has held a consistent position on Iraq "just don't pass the credibility test." Kerry, in Ohio, accused Bush of making a series of "wrong choices" as president, and he tried to tap into discontent about Bush's policies by promising a new direction for the country.
Bush boosted Republican morale with his performance at the town-hall-style debate, but several instant polls judged Kerry a narrow winner. More than changing the dynamic of a race that has tightened in the past 10 days, Friday's debate served to set up Wednesday's encounter in Arizona as an opportunity to provide momentum to one of the candidates going into the final weeks of the election.
The central tension of the campaign was on clear display at the St. Louis debate, with Kerry determined to keep voters focused on what he called the failures of Bush's Iraq and economic policies and with Bush trying to force a close look at Kerry's past positions on Iraq and a 20-year record in the Senate that the president has characterized as mediocre.
Before the debates began, Bush held the edge both in national polls and in potential electoral votes. Since then, national polls have tightened and the electoral map has grown more competitive. Strategists on both sides believe it is likely that whoever wins at least two of the three biggest prizes -- Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania -- will win the election.
With Bush pinned down by troublesome news about his Iraq policies, Kerry has tried to use the debates to boost his acceptability as a potential commander in chief and win the election with a strong focus on issues such as health care, the economy and stem cell research, where his advisers believe his positions are more popular than Bush's.
But the president's advisers took hope from what they believe was a solid performance by Bush in the domestic portion of Friday's debate -- a view shared privately by some Democratic strategists. As the next official debate turns to domestic issues, the president is stepping up attacks on Kerry as a liberal who will raise taxes and turn health care over to the federal government.
Bush plans to question Kerry's promise in Friday's debate never to raise taxes for Americans making less than $200,000 by citing the Democrat's past votes for tax increases, an aide said. Privately, Republicans say this was one of Kerry's more effective lines in the debate and one that could soothe voter concerns about Democrats raising taxes over the next four years. The president will continue to talk more about what he says are flaws in Kerry's plans rather than focusing on Bush's agenda on health care and taxes.
Still, the Bush campaign remains convinced that terrorism and national security will decide this election. At a morning fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Blunt in Missouri, Bush ridiculed Kerry's position on Iraq, saying he has been too inconsistent to trust. "With a straight face, he said, 'I only had one position on Iraq,' " Bush said. "He must think we've been on another planet."
Campaigning in Florida on Saturday, Vice President Cheney noted that at one point Kerry had said Hussein was a threat but that later he chastised Bush for being "preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat." Cheney said, "That's unbelievable, . . . mind-boggling."
After Bush's disappointing performance at the first debate in Coral Gables, Fla., Bush advisers signaled a belief that their candidate had rebounded. But Kerry advisers see openings to raise doubts about where Bush would take the country, particularly on domestic policy. They want to make the election a referendum on change.
Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg said Kerry made clear gains, particularly with independent and undecided voters, Friday night, according to his research. "After the debate, fewer people thought that John Kerry was a flip-flopper or too ready to raise taxes," he said.
Wednesday's debate at Arizona State University will focus exclusively on domestic issues. Although Kerry appeared defensive at points during that part of Friday's debate that covered domestic issues -- particularly on abortion -- Kerry advisers said their own research during the debate showed positive reactions from a selected group of voters on health care, prescription drugs, jobs and stem cell research.
On both abortion and stem cells, the competing Bush and Kerry strategies were clear, with Bush playing directly to social and religious conservatives and Kerry reaching out to swing voters and women.