Cover Story

Season clincher

With barely two weeks to go before elections, Bush and Kerry end the debates by revealing their softer sides-and their sharp differences

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

What was left to debate on the final eve of face-offs between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry? For some viewers, only whether to watch the National League or the American League championship series.

If the elusive swing voter tuned into the third and final presidential debate looking for differences, he got what he was looking for. Some similarities between the two men surfaced as they debated in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 13. Both wore red-dotted ties. Both wore dark suit jackets. Both, at least at one point, supported the war in Iraq. But only one of the two candidates said he received an official tribal blessing by Native Americans (Mr. Kerry). Peppered throughout the cordial policy debate, unlike previous confrontations, were interesting glimpses into the candidates' personal lives.

Viewers learned President Bush had not received a flu shot this year and did not plan to; his shot could go to the elderly. Mr. Bush admitted that the first lady, not he, spoke more eloquently.

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Mr. Kerry said he was enrolled in Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance. He did not say whether he'd received a flu shot. Mr. Kerry announced that he opposed importing ceiling fans from China (for those wondering), and that he started hunting when he was 12 or 13 years old. He revealed that he watches The Sopranos: "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. And he dealt the president a particularly low blow by revealing that Mr. Bush and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle had actually hugged.

Behind the folksy moments lurked the customary stratagems. Viewers saw the implementation of an apparent Democratic strategy to mention Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter as often as possible. When asked about gay marriage, Mr. Kerry, like John Edwards in the vice-presidential debates, offered up Mary Cheney as Exhibit A. Fox News reporter Jim Angle reported there was a "low groan" from the press gallery when Mr. Kerry referenced the vice president's daughter.

Gone for Mr. Bush were the grimaces and smirks of the first debate. Gone too was Mr. Kerry's incessant use of "I have a plan," though he once said he had "a plan to insure all Americans." If Mr. Kerry never quite explained that plan, Mr. Bush too was evasive at times. When moderator and CBS political journalist Bob Schieffer changed the topic to the minimum wage, the president talked instead about education. The Massachusetts senator pounced: "I'm tired of politicians who talk about family values who don't value families." In a bit of a Clintonesque explanation, Bush advisor Karen Hughes said afterwards that the president addressed education so often because he feels it's the root of many of our social problems.

Both candidates were asked about their faith. Mr. Kerry spoke about how faith affects his public policies, quoting loosely from James and even Deuteronomy. The president mentioned how he's buoyed by prayer: "I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, 'Well, how do you know?' I said, 'I just feel it.'"

One thing Mr. Bush did make clear: his displeasure at CBS News for broadcasting what it now admits were almost certainly forged documents demeaning his National Guard service. After Mr. Kerry referenced a network news organization, the president couldn't resist a jab at Mr. Schieffer's network: "With all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations about . . ." but the president stopped short. "Oh, never mind."

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