With the final presidential debate looming, the campaigns of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry today sought to preempt each other's arguments and leveled broadsides over the economy and other domestic issues.
The nationally televised debate, the last of three between Bush and the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, offers a potentially crucial opportunity to sway the nation's remaining undecided voters in a tight race. It is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time and last 90 minutes. Bob Schieffer of CBS News will moderate the debate, which is being held at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and is devoted to domestic matters.
As Bush and Kerry prepared for their final face-to-face encounter before the Nov. 2 election, some of the latest polls showed them essentially deadlocked.
A Washington Post daily tracking poll released today showed Kerry edging ahead of Bush by 49 percent to 48 percent among likely voters, with independent candidate Ralph Nader at 1 percent. It was the first time since Aug. 1 that the poll showed Kerry leading. The previous Post tracking poll had Bush ahead 50 percent to 47 percent.
Among all registered voters surveyed, Kerry led 48 percent to 46 percent in the latest poll. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points, meaning that Bush and Kerry are basically in a tie 20 days before the election.
In a campaign appearance in Meadville, Pa., meanwhile, Vice President Cheney -- standing before a "Sportsmen for Bush-Cheney" banner, said Bush is ready for the debate tonight. "He's loaded for bear," Cheney said, Washington Post staff writer Michael Laris reported.
Cheney reiterated his taunting critique of Kerry as a man of tough talk, but little substance on key security issues, such as Iraq. He told the crowd that Kerry "didn't attend a single meeting" of the Senate intelligence committee in the year following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Kerry, he said, "isn't as serious as I want my commander-in-chief to be."
Cheney also chided Kerry, as he and Bush have done repeatedly in recent days, to a New York Times Magazine interview in which Kerry said Americans would feel safe again when terrorism was reduced to the point "where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance."
The Kerry campaign has accused Cheney and Bush of taking Kerry's words out of context and noted that a Bush adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, made a similar comment two years ago when he said the United States could win the war on terrorism in the same sense that it could win the war on crime. "There is going to be no peace treaty on the battleship Missouri in the war on terrorism, but we can break its back so that it is a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies," Scowcroft said.
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, stumped in closely contested Oregon today, attacking his Republican rivals for being "out of touch" with domestic and pocketbook issues, Washington Post staff writer Chris L. Jenkins reported.
Edwards and Kerry also responded directly to comments made by Treasury Secretary John Snow Monday in Ohio, where he said the loss of American jobs over the past several years has been a "myth."
In other poll results, a daily Reuters/Zogby tracking poll showed Bush and Kerry in a tie among likely voters at 45 percent each. Nader, at 1.5 percent, trailed well behind undecided, which polled 7 percent.
"The third debate is crucial," pollster John Zogby said in a statement, with undecided voters still up for grabs but many of them apparently leaning away from the president. He said the poll shows that only 11 percent of the undecided voters feel Bush deserves to be reelected, while 40 percent feel it is time for someone new.
In more localized polls by various organizations in some key battleground states, Bush was leading Kerry by small margins in Arizona and Iowa and narrowly trailing him in Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
With the focus shifting to economic issues, the Bush campaign today released a letter denouncing Kerry's economic proposals that it said was signed by "368 of the nation's leading economists from 44 states," including six Nobel laureates and six former chairmen of the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said in a statement that the economists "recognize that President Bush's pro-growth policies and across-the-board tax relief are the right policies for sustained growth, and they are urging voters not to turn back with John Kerry's tax and spend agenda."
The letter said, "All in all, John Kerry favors economic policies that, if implemented, would lead to bigger and more intrusive government and a lower standard of living for the American people."
The Kerry campaign hit back by describing the signatories as "Republican economists" who, while attacking Kerry, had nothing good to say about the Bush administration's policies.
"The remarkable thing about the letter is that these Republican economists were unable to say a single positive thing about George Bush's economic record or his economic policy," the statement said. It said they know that Bush's tax cuts have not delivered the 6 million new jobs he promised and that, in fact, he is the first president in 72 years to lose jobs during his term.
The campaign also noted that 79 percent of economists in an informal poll by the American Economic Review were critical of Bush's economic policies, and it pointed to the endorsement of Kerry by 10 Nobel Prize-winning economists in an open letter in August.
The Bush campaign charged that Kerry in tonight's debate was "likely to distort President Bush's achievements, as well as his own record that has earned him the ranking of the Senate's most liberal member." The campaign put out a preemptive list of "myths, distortions and false attacks" on domestic matters such as taxes, the deficit, education, health care and energy.
The Kerry campaign issued its own list of "myths of the Bush administration" and charged that the characterization of Kerry as the Senate's most liberal member was "another Bush lie." It said the National Journal, cited by Bush as the source of the ranking, has backed away from that description, saying Kerry "isn't the most liberal senator."
Kerry, reacting to Treasury Secretary Snow's comments in Ohio, said in a statement that the remarks "reflect the callous disregard this administration has shown for the millions of people who are out of work. . . ." He said Bush will "have to answer for the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover."
Snow reportedly told a crowd at the University of Findlay in Ohio that "claims like the one that Bush will be the first president to end a term with fewer jobs than when he started are nothing more than 'myths.' "
Snow was quoted by a local newspaper as also dismissing Democratic charges that the Bush administration squandered a $5.4 trillion budget surplus, saying the surplus was "a mirage" and "never existed."
"Once again, George Bush and his team mocked working men and women," Edwards told a spirited crowd in Medford, Ore., during a town hall-style meeting in a high school gym. "George Bush and his team called the job loss that America has experienced a 'myth.' They called the $5 trillion surplus they inherited a 'myth.'
"What about the millions who have lost their health care? Is that a 'myth' too? How about the millions who have fallen into poverty? Is that a 'myth?' "
Edwards added, "If George Bush and his team think that the struggles that you've gone through over that last four years is a 'myth,' then let me tell you, he's not just out of touch --he'll be out of a job on November 2nd. And that won't be a myth."
Edwards made his remarks on the first of three stops in Oregon, a state that went for Democrat Al Gore over Bush in the 2000 election but is considered one of 16 battleground states in the current campaign.
President Bush is scheduled to visit a nearby town later this week, as is Kerry.
The Bush campaign today sought to offer a gentler version of Cheney, who was accompanied to Pennsylvania by his wife Lynne and two granddaughters.
The carefully scripted tour through the battleground state sent the vice president, best known in this campaign for attacking Kerry's readiness to fight terror, buying fudge, picking up pumpkins, and petting a goat with granddaughters Elizabeth and Grace. School kids squealing "Cheney, Cheney, Cheney!" -- or simply squealing -- made lively props for Cheney and his crew, who grabbed and shook their little hands.
Lynne Cheney tied the day's dual themes -- families and terrorism -- by citing her own worries as a mother and grandmother, and the need for protection in a dangerous world. "When I think, 'Who do I want standing in the door?' it's not John Kerry and it's not John Edwards," she told cheering supporters.
The campaign sought to counter the charge, repeated by Kerry, that the president and Cheney let bin Laden slip away in the mountainous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and that the war in Iraq remains a distraction.
"They keep talking about Tora Bora," Lynn Cheney chimed in helpfully during a question-and-answer session with supporters. "What's the story?"
"It's a fallacious charge. It doesn't stand up," Cheney said. "We clearly have the capacity to do both."