Trail Mix: On the Defense

The final debate of the 2004 election in Tempe, Ariz., was supposed to be John Kerry's turf: jobs, health care and the economy. But it was also George W. Bush's ground: religion, abortion and education. After opinion polls showed that voters saw Kerry as the victor in the first two contests, Bush needed a big win to level up the debating phase of the general election. Here's a rough guide to the highs and lows for both candidates.

Bush: The Highs

Bush turned question after question toward one of his few strong domestic issues in the polls: education. To a question about the minimum wage, Bush gave one of his most clear and committed statements. When the president spoke of inner-city kids being "shuffled through" public schools, he sounded engaged in the problem of failing schools. He also sounded like he had a vision for what he wanted to achieve--a vital goal for any would-be president--even if the subject was bogged down in a dispute over funds for the No Child Left Behind Act. "You see, we'll never be able to compete in the 21st century unless we have an education system that doesn't quit on children," Bush explained, "an education system that raises standards, an education that makes sure there's excellence in every classroom."

When it came to religion--perhaps the domestic issue that has been hung round his neck more than any other--Bush was light years away from his caricature. His words on his own faith were sensitive and respectful.

"My faith is ... very personal," he said. "I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family. I pray for my little girls. But I'm mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You're equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to."

Bush: The Lows

The president was handed a golden opportunity to talk in real-world terms to someone who had watched his job go overseas. But instead of showcasing his status as a regular guy, Bush sounded strangely cold and impersonal. "I say, here's some help," Bush said. "Here's some trade-adjustment assistance money for you to go to a community college in your neighborhood, a community college which is providing the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century." It's one thing to fail to express any sympathy for a jobless American. It's another for Bush to lapse into Beltway jargon like "trade-adjustment assistance money." This was, after all, the man who once nurtured a reputation as a non-Washington politician.

Bush also looked flummoxed by a question about the flu vaccine shortage. There are many ways to pivot out of the flu problem. He could have said his administration was deeply troubled by the shortfall--the result of British regulators shutting down a vaccine manufacturer that usually supplies half of the doses used by the United States. He could have said he would study how to fix the problem and encourage drug companies to invest in vaccine production in the United States. But he ended up repeating a weak response. "The best thing we can do now," Bush explained, "given the circumstances with the company in England, is for those of us who are younger and healthy, don't get a flu shot."

Kerry: The Highs

Kerry has often stumbled on questions of religion and abortion, especially as it relates to his own Roman Catholic faith. Instead he picked his way through the minefield, citing his experience as an altar boy to underscore his personal beliefs. But he drew the line at governing as a Catholic, quoting one of his favorite sound bites from his idol, John F. Kennedy, who said: "I'm not running to be a Catholic president. I'm running to be a president who happens to be Catholic." Kerry insisted--in one of his clearest answers on the subject all year--that abortion was a matter of choice for women, in spite of his own Catholic faith. "I believe that I can't legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith," Kerry explained. "I believe that choice, a woman's choice, is between a woman, God and her doctor."

Kerry's style of delivery proved an effective new tactic in the final debate. The senator spent almost every answer talking directly into the camera, addressing voters as "my fellow Americans" or simply as "America."

That was a smart piece of strategy, breaking down the personal barriers that he normally carries with him as a long-serving senator. Another sharp tactical move by Kerry was to appeal directly to women voters. He turned an answer on the minimum wage into one about equal pay and the discrimination that women suffer in the workplace. He did the same with a question about affirmative action, arguing that it applied not just to people of color but to women also. Women are the largest bloc of nonvoters in the election, and they also hold the key to many suburban areas in the battleground states. Kerry managed to appeal to women without seeming to pander or condescend.

Kerry: The Lows

Kerry's response to the final question of the night, about his wife, landed awkwardly. First he joked about marrying Teresa Heinz Kerry for her money--at best an edgy joke, at worst a tasteless attempt at humor. "Well, I guess the president and you and I are three examples of lucky people who married up," Kerry told moderator Bob Schieffer. "And some would say maybe me more so than others. But I can take it." In contrast, Bush seemed to well up with tears as he recalled falling in love with Laura at a backyard barbecue in Midland, Texas. Kerry's reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter in response to a question about whether homosexuality was a choice may also generate a negative response. Immediate postdebate reaction suggested that at least some voters thought the reference was too personal, and Second Lady Lynne Cheney promptly slammed the candidate for what she called "a cheap and tawdry political trick."

Kerry often disappeared into a succession of numbers that were hard to digest at once. The senator landed his zinger about 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.") But immediately afterward, he waded into numbers about the average rise in health-are costs, hikes in gasoline prices and the rising cost of prescription drugs. The statistics prolonged one of the most tedious exchanges of the night--the never-ending battle over the numbers, whether they were Kerry's votes on taxes or Bush's lack of funding for a range of commitments.

Overall

Both candidates played a defensive strategy in Tempe for fear of messing up the final debate and emerging into the final phase of the election on a downward slide. For Kerry that meant the debates reinforced the impressions of his first two encounters--as a far more presidential and personable candidate than many voters imagined. Bush improved his performance from the second debate, toning down his voice successfully even if he didn't tone down his attacks on Kerry. But it wasn't enough to erase the memories of his poor performance in the first debate, and his overly aggressive tone in the second.