As President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry prepared for Wednesday night's final debate, the two sides previewed their themes for the domestic-policy showdown, with the incumbent branding Kerry a liberal and the Democrats decrying Bush's job-creation record.
The debate Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz., has the potential to be a pivotal factor in a contest that has become a virtual draw in polls with three weeks until Election Day. The encounter will turn the public's attention to economic and social issues after Iraq and terrorism have dominated the discussion -- a shift both campaigns prepared for Tuesday.
Bush, speaking to a rally in a sports arena here, painted Kerry as a big-spending liberal eager to expand federal programs -- furthering a bid by the Republicans, who have long portrayed Kerry as a "flip-flopper" who takes opportunistic positions, to describe him as a dedicated left-winger.
"On issue after issue, my opponent showed why he earned his ranking as the most liberal member of the United States Senate," Bush said, referring to a ranking by National Journal from which the magazine has since backed away. "To pay for all the big-spending programs he has outlined during the campaign, he's going to have to raise your taxes," Bush said.
Kerry took the day off to prepare for the debate, scrapping plans to spend Tuesday night in Arizona to spend an extra day in New Mexico -- a state aides believe he has a better chance of winning. Running mate John Edwards, traveling in closely contested Colorado, sharpened attacks on his Republican rivals, telling a partisan crowd outside Denver that Bush is "out of touch" with the concerns of middle-class Americans.
Edwards's remarks came just hours after Bush's rally here in Colorado Springs. "This president is completely unwilling to acknowledge what's happening . . . with the economy, with health care," the North Carolina senator told several hundred energetic supporters in a school gym in Commerce City, about 10 miles from Denver. "The problem is, if you don't see a problem, you can't fix it."
To hammer away at the theme that the Bush administration has hurt Colorado, the campaign released statistics that the state has lost 69,000 jobs during the Bush administration, including 36,000 manufacturing jobs. Aides also pointed out that the jobs created on average pay $18,000 less than the jobs lost.
"People in Colorado know what is happening with the economy . . . all these jobs being lost," Edwards said during a town-hall-style meeting. "I guarantee you tomorrow in this debate, he's gonna try to put lipstick on this pig. But no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it's still a pig, isn't it?"
As the other candidates turned their focus to domestic matters, Vice President Cheney, making stops in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, continued his assault on Kerry's terrorism-fighting credentials. Cheney said the election will be a "referendum" on how to fight terrorism. He repeated his assertion, which he acknowledged is "controversial," that al Qaeda was tied to Iraq's Saddam Hussein. "He had a relationship with al Qaeda," Cheney said. "If you question that, go look at testimony by George Tenet . . . where he laid out the specifics of a 10-year relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq."
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, former CIA chief Tenet cited several "high-level contacts" over a decade, but he also said that the agency reported they never led to any cooperative activity.
Fielding questions from invited supporters in Milwaukee, Cheney listened to one audience member say "the United Nations is the number one terrorist enabler organization in the world." Cheney neither embraced nor dismissed that claim, saying: "The U.N. has served a useful purpose over the years in various capacities, but obviously there are some problems there." He cited corruption in the oil-for-food program in Iraq.
In a breakfast gathering in Davenport, Iowa, Cheney spoke to about 60 local Republicans. He took four questions from the audience that turned out to be testimonials praising the work of Bush. "Next to Jesus Christ, he probably took the greatest load on his shoulder of any individual," one attendee said.
In a sign of tension in the tight race, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) assailed Edwards for suggesting Monday that the Bush administration is blocking research that could one day help disabled people such as actor Christopher Reeve walk again. Frist, a medical doctor, said in Washington that Edwards's use of Reeve's death was "crass, opportunist" and "shameful."
"What's crass and shameful is that Bill Frist is doing the dirty work of right-wing blogs and Rush Limbaugh," said Mark Kornblau, Edwards's press secretary.
That Bush has held three campaign rallies in Colorado over two days suggests how tight the race in the state has become. Once thought to be safely in Bush's column, Colorado has become competitive -- a Gallup survey last week showed the race even. Democrats have tried to keep the pressure on by sending Edwards to the state -- Tuesday was his fourth trip -- and running a series of ads.
Farhi is traveling with Bush; Milbank is traveling with Cheney. Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.