President Bush and John F. Kerry battled sharply over domestic issues in the third debate of the 2004 campaign. The Democratic nominee charged that the president has compiled a record of failure on the economy and health care, and Bush accused Kerry of a Senate record that is both out of the mainstream and lacking in accomplishment.

Kerry repeatedly sought to put Bush on the defensive, charging that he has allowed the economy to go backward, has turned budget surpluses into deficits and has stood by as millions of Americans have lost their health insurance.

The president tried to parry those attacks by challenging Kerry's record during his 20 years in the Senate, accusing him of repeatedly voting to raise taxes, of failing to do anything significant to reform health care and of favoring health care changes that would greatly enhance the federal government's power.

Wednesday's 90-minute debate came as the presidential race has tightened significantly, with Kerry using the first two debates to eliminate what had been a Bush lead of about five percentage points in national polls.

The heart of the debate was bread-and-butter issues, with Kerry arguing that Bush has favored the wealthy over the middle class with tax cuts and the president warning middle-class voters that a Kerry administration would mean higher taxes not only on the wealthy but also on average Americans, describing Kerry's talk as "bait and switch" politics.

Kerry was equally dismissive of Bush's criticisms, saying the president "walks on by" the nation's economic problems. "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," he said.

-- Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei

After the handshake, John F. Kerry, left, and President Bush were far from friendly.