The Slog of War

It's become the game within the game on debate night: who can get to the spin room first? A week ago in Coral Gables, Fla., Team Kerry scored, arriving triumphantly to proclaim victory over the many faces of George W. Bush. This time the Bush camp was determined not to be outdone. At 10 o'clock, a full half hour before Charlie Gibson rang down the curtain on the "Fury in Missouri," a gaggle of the president's aides gathered in Spin Alley for a choice bit of political stagecraft.

They high-fived, slapped backs and flashed grins at a roomful of reporters, who were still busy decoding a flurry of arguments over tax cuts, health care and the environment. The passion play ended quickly--the aides didn't bother actually spinning anybody until later--but the point was clear: the ghosts of Florida had been exorcised. Bush was Bush again. The president's crew radiated relief and a sense of renewed confidence, even if several post-debate soundings gave Kerry a slight edge. "This has stopped any perceived momentum for Kerry," said Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon.

The president's aides knew their boss had his work cut out for him. As Bush watched his first debate foray on tape, he realized that he had stumbled badly. Even the First Lady joined the choir, a friend said. "I don't know what happened," she told the president, according to the friend. "You've got to be yourself, and you weren't." The headlines weren't helping. A steady hail of bad news rained down on Bush--from the Duelfer report (which concluded that Saddam possessed no WMD for a full decade before the Iraq invasion), to the admission by the former Iraq administrator Paul Bremer that there weren't enough troops on the ground to secure the country, to a lackluster jobs report. For a time it seemed as though reality itself had suited up and joined the Kerry team.

Yet Bush, ever the competitor, was not going gently into Friday night. Buoyed by Dick Cheney's unapologetic performance in his midweek vice presidential debate against John Edwards, Bush arrived at Washington University in St. Louis like a gladiator entering the ring. A little too pumped for battle, perhaps; his responses to Kerry's early jabs on Iraq were hoarse and a bit coarse, and at one point it looked as though he might tackle the mild-mannered Gibson. But Bush eventually found his stride, picked up points on social values and performed well enough to propel him toward the final showdown in Tempe, Ariz., with a new avenue of attack and a sense that this race is once again a virtual dead heat.

Just three weeks before Election Day, the endgame of the 2004 election is now here--and it isn't pretty. Armed with a sharpened stump speech, Bush intends to spend the rest of the campaign tearing apart what he called his opponent's long liberal record in the U.S. Senate. "You can run, but you can't hide," Bush said, citing Kerry's voting record on taxes. Meanwhile the Kerry team plans to spend the home stretch attacking the president's credibility. "That's the theme that we're pounding on: these guys can't tell the truth and can't admit their mistakes," said one of Kerry's senior staff.

The run-up to the rumble in St. Louis was fairly relaxed for Kerry. He spent the week prepping in a hotel near Denver, Colo. Clad in cords and sneakers, Kerry teased his aides with fake answers, riffed his own closing statement and tossed a football with his staff. On the big day itself, Kerry was comfortable enough to dig deep into new details. Standing in the wings of the debate set, Kerry asked one perplexed aide what the population of Missouri was. Onstage minutes later, the reason was revealed: Kerry suggested the Show Me State had enough troops in Iraq to make it the second biggest ally in Iraq after Britain. "That's not a grand coalition," Kerry scoffed. The senator even scored rare points with humor by noting that the only people in the room affected by his plan to roll back tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans were he, the president and Gibson. "Charlie, I'm sorry," Kerry said, "you, too."

Behind the scenes, the two campaigns could barely contain their disdain for one another. The two sides clashed over the number of undecided voters in the town-hall audience. And they wrangled over a line of tape down the center of the stage that separated both men. Kerry wanted the freedom to wander across the red carpet, according to an aide. The Bush camp dismissed the dispute as gamesmanship, saying the line was there only to help the TV cameras. But the specter of Al Gore--and his 2000 venture into "Bush's space"--loomed over the discussion.

Amid the procedural wrangles, both camps were coping with the fallout of the vice presidential clash. Cheney's aggressive attack on Kerry as "always being on the wrong side of defense issues" helped pave the way for Bush's tough new stump speech. But the vice president also gave the Democrats some new ammunition. Cheney claimed he had never met John Edwards--but within hours, images of the two men together at a prayer breakfast were everywhere. Cheney also stated bluntly that he had "not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11"--contradicting his repeated claims that one of the 9/11 hijackers once met with an Iraqi agent in Prague.

There's little hope that this week's final debate in Arizona will be any less antagonistic. As both campaigns flew out of St. Louis, they were already honing new attack lines. By the time Bush arrived in Waterloo, Iowa, his aides were repeating their new mantra that Kerry couldn't hide from his voting history. "He wants to pretend he doesn't have a record as a liberal," said Karen Hughes. At the same time, on Kerry's plane en route to Cleveland, the senator's aides were staking out their ground for the last debate on domestic issues. Their attack: that Bush cares only about looking after his wealthy buddies. "John Kerry is going to be concerned about the needs of the middle class," said Mike McCurry, a Kerry adviser.

As the debate season draws to a close, the rival campaigns agree on at least one point: the other side needs to win the final contest this week by a big margin to change the course of the race. "Bush has to hit a grand slam to salvage anything from these debates," says Kerry senior adviser David Morehouse. In the Red corner, Bush's chief strategist Matthew Dowd believes Kerry needs "a series of wins" to overcome what he says is Bush's two-point lead in the horse race. In other words, the high-fiving and backslapping over the Tempest in Tempe has already begun.