With the third and final presidential debate over, the candidates must now prepare for the final three weeks of a presidential race built on repetition.
J. Edwin Benton, political science professor at USF, thinks that was all Wednesday night’s debate between Democratic nominee John Kerry and President George W. Bush in Tempe, Ariz. was about.
“It was a draw again. Both candidates handled themselves really well and, like in the last debate (Friday night in St. Louis), were able to reiterate and clarify some of the points they have been raising,” Benton said.
“I think they both did it well. I think it was particularly important for the president to do well … it showed the American public that the first debate (called by most as a victory for Kerry) was a fluke and that he really can handle himself and can answer the tough questions.”
Benton said with the conclusion of the four debates — three presidential and one vice presidential — voters have had ample opportunity to understand the candidates.
“For people who had already made up their minds one way or the other, (the debates) served to confirm their thoughts, while for any undecided voters there was definitely a chance to see where the candidates stand on a lot of the important issues.”
Health care and the job market in America dominated the debate, with Kerry accusing Bush of being responsible for lost jobs and the lack of health care for millions of Americans. Bush called his opponent an extreme liberal and said the Massachusetts senator could not provide details on a plan to provide health care to more Americans.
“There’s a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank,” Bush said in the final debate of a close and contentious campaign for the White House. “Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.”
Undeterred, the Democratic challenger said many of the nation’s ills could be laid at Bush’s feet.
He “regrettably rushed us into war” in Iraq, Kerry said, and the country is less safe as a result. He said 11 consecutive presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, have been hit with economic difficulties, yet “none of them lost jobs the way this president has.”
As for health care, Kerry said, 5 million Americans have lost coverage under Bush’s watch.
“The president has turned his back on the wellness of America, and there is no system and it’s starting to fall apart,” Kerry said.
Kerry and the president also debated abortion, gay rights and immigration, among other issues, during the 90-minute debate that underscored deep differences, only 19 campaign days before the Nov. 2 election.
Taxes were a particular flash point between the president and his challenger.
Questioned by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS, Kerry said he would follow through on his plan to roll back tax cuts for Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year while preserving the reductions that have gone to lower- and middle-income wage earners. Under Bush, he said, the tax burden of the wealthy has gone down and that of the middle class has gone up.
But Bush said Kerry would never stick to his promise, and his election would mean higher taxes for all. He said that in more than 20 years in the Senate, Kerry had voted 97 times to raise taxes and twice as often against cutting them.
“Anybody can play with those votes, everybody knows that,” Kerry retorted to Bush.
“Senator, no one’s playing with your votes,” the president said.
Bush made a similar point when the debate turned to health care. While Kerry said he had a plan to help expand health coverage for those who lack it, Bush said, “plan is not a litany of complaints. And a plan is not to lay out programs you can’t pay for.”
The president said Kerry’s proposal would cost the government $7,700 per family.
“If every family in America signed up, it would cost the federal government $5 trillion over 10 years,” he said. “It’s an empty promise. It’s called bait-and-switch.”
The two men disagreed over abortion, Kerry saying the choice should be “between a woman, God and her doctor.”
The president said he wants to promote a “culture of life,” and said Kerry voted “out of the mainstream” when he opposed legislation to ban partial-birth abortions.
Asked directly whether he supports overturning the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right of abortion, Bush sidestepped.
“What you’re asking me is will I have a litmus test for my judges, and the answer is no,” the president said.
The president also dodged a bit when the issue of a minimum wage increase came up. Kerry emphatically claimed to favor one, and said Republicans in control of Congress had repeatedly blocked Democratic attempts to pass legislation.
Bush said he supported “Mitch McConnell’s” bill to raise the minimum wage, without explanation. McConnell is a Republican senator from Kentucky. As a candidate four years ago, Bush said he favored raising minimum wage so long as individual states were permitted to exclude workers within their borders.
Kerry said that the recent expiration of a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons was a “failure of presidential leadership” and that because of it, terrorists can purchase weapons at gun shows in the United States.
Bush said there weren’t enough votes in Congress to extend the ban.
Kerry responded with the claim that if he were told by Tom DeLay that there weren’t enough votes in Congress, he’d insist on a fight to win the necessary support. DeLay, R-Texas, is the House majority leader and an opponent of gun control.
The debate was similar in format to the first — the two rivals standing behind identical lecterns set precisely 10 feet apart. Bush was on better behavior this time, though, and there was no grimacing or scowling when it was Kerry’s turn to speak.
The final question of the night did not address domestic policy, but the candidates’ family lives. Both men were asked the most important lesson they had learned from their wives.
“To listen to them,” Bush said, drawing laughter from the otherwise-silent audience. “To stand up straight and not to scowl. I love the strong women around me. I can’t tell you how much I love my wife and our daughters.”
“Well I guess the president and you and I are three examples of lucky people who married up. And some would say maybe me more so than others,” Kerry said, addressing Schieffer. “But I can take it.”
Benton said the question was included to allow the candidates to relax before making their closing statements.
“I think it was almost to release some tension and pressure and not have to worry about bashing the other person,” he said.
Benton also said the question was a small victory for Bush.
“I think on that particular question, the president handled himself well. He came across as compassionate,” he said.
Benton said that with the debates over, candidates will be working extra hard on the campaign trail.
“Assuming nothing unexpected happens, like a terrorist attack or the capture of Osama bin Laden … I think for the next two or three weeks we will see the candidates rehashing some of the same points over and over again before election day.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.