John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, on Wednesday night unleashed volley after volley of facts and statistics to challenge George W. Bush's record on domestic issues, prompting the president to respond with a frontal attack on Mr Kerry's personal credibility.
In the third and final presidential debate in Tempe, Arizona, the Massachusetts senator displayed his mastery of the detailed argument, but Mr Bush showed that over the course of three encounters with his opponent he had perfected the art of character assault.
At such a charged juncture in the campaign, when both candidates have come to view Election Day with an equal measure of excitement and foreboding, there was something almost anti-climactic about the eagerly anticipated final debate. While the first had been extraordinarly lop-sided in favour of Mr Kerry and the second marked Mr Bush's comeback, the third encounter proved to be a reprise of past arguments, ending without an incident of stunning political theatre or an undeniable winner.
But both men head out for the final 19 days of the election campaign, buoyed by what their campaigns perceived as powerful expositions of their rival arguments for the White House: Mr Kerry making the case for a “fresh start” after the wrong choices which have lead to the Iraq war and squeezed the middle class; Mr Bush stoking fear of a tax-raising, spineless Kerry presidency while appealing for four more years to wage war against terrorists and reform social security.
Mr Bush and Mr Kerry each had endearing moments in the closing stages of the debate, when they were asked what they had learned from their strong-willed wives. “Listen to them,” Mr Bush said, without skipping a beat. “To stand up straight and not scowl.”
Mr Kerry had a fine riposte, saying he, Bob Schieffer, the moderator, and Mr Bush are “three examples of lucky people who married up”. He paused and added: “And some would say maybe me more so than others.” Mr Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz Kerry, heiress to an estimated $500m ketchup fortune.
While Mr Kerry displayed a mastery of details and figures, Mr Bush had the more succinct one-liners. The president described Mr Kerry as being from the far “left bank” of American politics, so far out of the mainstream that Sen Edward Kennedy is “conservative senator from Massachusetts”.
Mr Bush also returned to the “global test” comment Mr Kerry made in the first debate, when the Democratic challenger argued that a US president needs to meet an internationally-recognised standard of honesty and prudence when he wages war. Mr Bush reminded the audience of Mr Kerry's opposition to the 1991 Gulf war, making the point that when a vast coalition was put together he voted against it: “Apparently you can't pass any test under his vision of the world.”
When asked repeatedly about the jobs lost on his watch, Mr Bush switched quickly to education, describing his “No Child Left Behind Act” as a jobs initiative. Mr Kerry pointed out that Mr Bush sought to avoid the jobs and minimum wage issue head on, following up with one of many statistical bombardments on Mr Bush's domestic policy record.
“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,” Mr Kerry said. “The president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see. Healthcare costs for the average American have gone up 64 per cent; tuitions have gone up 35 per cent; gasoline prices up 30 per cent; Medicare premiums went up 17 per cent a few days ago; prescription drugs are up 12 per cent a year. But guess what America?.The wages of Americans have gone down.”
Mr Kerry attacked Mr Bush's handling of healthcare: “This president has turned his back on the wellness of America. ” Mr Kerry said, after reciting the rising number of Americans who are living without healthcare insurance.
Neither man offered great detail on how they would deal with the burgeoning deficit. But President Bush challenged Mr Kerry's credibility, arguing that his plans were unaffordable: “It's an empty promise,” Mr Bush said. “It's called bait and switch.”
Rather than scowl at criticisms, Mr Bush sought to laugh them off, even when his smirks and sniggers did not seem to correspond with the gravity of the charges levelled against him.
Mr Kerry had a calculated answer to a question on gay marriage, choosing to make a point of mentioning Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter: “I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as.”
But both men also made fulsome reference to their faith. Mr Bush saying that he prays a lot, Mr Kerry quoting from the scriptures.
The debates have transformed the 2004 presidential election, firing up what had been a trailing Kerry campaign and causing a creeping sense of self-doubt in the Bush camp.
Mr Bush entered the Miami University auditorium in Coral Gables, Florida, just two weeks ago enjoying a modest, but undeniable lead in the race for the White House. The president was poised, his supporters hoped, to bury the Democratic challenge with a display of his likeability, moral clarity and presidential authority.
But Mr Bush's momentum was checked by his peevish, off-balance performance when confronted with Mr Kerry's to-the-point assault on the president's case for and conduct of the war in Iraq.
Two polls conducted immediately after Wednesday’s debate indicated that Mr Kerry had won the third head-to-head encounter while a third poll said the two candidates had tied.
Some 52 per cent of those polled by CNN said Mr Kerry won, while 39 per cent said Mr Bush won. The poll had a 5 percentage point margin of error. In CBS’s poll of uncommitted voters, 39 per cent said Mr Kerry won, 25 per cent Mr Bush and 36 per cent called it a tie. The margin of error was 7 percentage points.
A poll by ABC showed 42 per cent saying Mr Kerry won, versus 41 per cent who gave the victory to Mr Bush. A total of 14 per cent called it a tie in the poll, which had a 4.5 percentage point margin of error.
Overall, polls showed Mr Bush and Mr Kerry at a dead heat in the election race. The Zogby poll showed both men with 45 per cent each of the vote, an ABC news poll separately showed both candidates each having the backing of 48 per cent of likely voters.
In a year which has seen confidence see-saw between the candidates, the return to equilibrium in the polls marks an upswing in the fortunes of Mr Kerry.
After a surge of Democrat enthusiasm in the wake of his party's convention in Boston in July, Mr Kerry's support seemed to dissipate in August as his character came under assault from a savage series of advertisements from a group of critics styling themselves as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
A meticulously managed Republican National Convention in New York further spurred Mr Bush, who enjoyed a lead through the month of September ranging from 5 per cent in the polls to as much as 13 per cent.
With both men badly needing to be seen to win the third and final debate, Mr Bush and Mr Kerry return on Thursday for the final stretch of traditional campaigning, a relentless schedule of stump speeches at mass rallies in the roughly 10 battleground states which will decide the election.
Mr Bush and Mr Kerry start in Las Vegas. The Democratic challenger will address the AARP convention, the most powerful lobby of elderly Americans, but given the White House's disagreement with the AARP over Mr Bush's Medicare reforms, the president has declined their invitation and will address a Bush-Cheney rally of guests invited by the Republican party.