With the presidential election only 20 days away, President Bush (search) and John Kerry (search) will have their last public face-off Wednesday night in an effort to convince voters that each of them is the right man for the top job in the White House.
Health care, education, the environment and homeland security are among the top domestic issues the incumbent and his Democratic challenger are likely to discuss when they meet for the third and final presidential debate, which will be held at Arizona State University in Tempe, starting at 9 p.m. EDT.
An estimated 1,000 people will be in the debate audience. Seats are equally divided between the Bush and Kerry campaigns, the university and the debate commission. An expected 40 million to 50 million people will be watching from home.
By a flip of the coin, Kerry will get the first question while Bush will get to make the last closing statement.
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In the debate, which will be moderated by Bob Schieffer (search) of CBS News, Kerry is expected to say that if elected, he will fight for middle-class families. He plans to charge that Bush only cares about the wealthy business class, and is also expected to target the president on job losses, rising health-care costs and high gas prices.
Bush, on the other hand, is expected to argue that the recession he inherited from President Clinton has improved, more jobs are steadily being created and his tax cuts have worked. He also likely will portray Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal who will raise taxes as soon as he takes the Oval Office — if elected.
In the Bush Corner
Bush arrived in Phoenix on Tuesday and held an informal and formal rehearsal for the final showdown.
"I'm looking forward to tomorrow night. It's a chance to point out major differences," Bush said Tuesday in a speech that spoke mainly of his policies but also took jabs at Kerry over terrorism, health care and energy.
Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the man who plays Senator Kerry in Bush debate preparations, flew in Tuesday for a full rehearsal with time limits, after which the president and first lady Laura Bush went out for Mexican food with Arizona Sen. John McCain and his wife Cindy.
Asked how he felt Tuesday night, the president said "full" — perhaps of debate strategy as well as enchiladas.
The Bush campaign is quietly optimistic that the former Texas governor, who pushed initiatives on tax cuts and education, will stand tall in the final debate.
"There's going to be a debate tonight in Arizona. The president's ready. He's loaded for bear. I'm sure he'll do a great job like he did last Friday night," Vice President Dick Cheney told a group of supporters on Wednesday.
Bush advisers note the president did his best in the second half of the second debate, the town hall-style meeting, when the focus turned to domestic issues. His advisers are also encouraged by the fact that in spite of polls showing voters thought Kerry did better in both the first two debates, he has not been able to take the lead in most polls.
"Even as people say John Kerry is a good talker, he's behind in The Washington Post tracking poll by 4 or 5, he's behind by 3 in the CBS/New York Times tracking poll, and he's behind in the ABC tracking poll by 3, 4 or 5," said Bush-Cheney adviser Ralph Reed.
But in an average of all polls, the president is up only about 1.5 points.
And in Kerry's Corner
Kerry arrived in Arizona Wednesday after spending two days in New Mexico, where he spoke about energy issues and prepared for the debate.
"I feel great, fantastic," Kerry said Wednesday about how ready he was for the last debate.
Kerry campaign officials appeared very confident about the senator's chances on Wednesday. They said polls show Kerry won the first two debates and that the last debate's focus on domestic policy will give Kerry an advantage.
Internal Kerry campaign polls suggest the president's attacks on Kerry as a liberal flip-flopper have done little damage recently and have backfired on the president a bit, giving Kerry a boost among women, who Kerry pollsters say aren't buying the president's attacks.
"If you lost two debates in a row like George Bush has, according to every public poll, the debate is on the guy who is 0-2," senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart told FOX News on Wednesday.
"A month ago, the president's team was up by 10 or 12 points," and now general-election matchups show a tied race, added Michael Meehan, a senior Kerry-Edwards adviser. "John Kerry's made up a lot of ground."
Campaign officials argue that polls show Kerry leads Bush by double digits on health care, the environment and education, among other domestic issues, and Bush only leads on tax cuts.
Kerry is expected to wear the same red tie — which he calls "lucky" — that he wore in the first two debates.
Kerry aides said that actor Michael J. Fox will be in the audience to support the Massachusetts senator. Fox suffers from Parkinson's disease and strongly supports Kerry's stance on embryonic stem-cell research.
Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, tried to set the debate stage Wednesday by blasting the administration for Treasury Secretary John Snow's suggestion, reported in the Ohio Courier newspaper, that it is a myth that Bush is the first president since the Depression to lose jobs.
"I wonder if the 4 million Americans who have fallen into poverty in the last four years — I wonder if that's a myth," the North Carolina senator told a group of supporters in Medford, Ore. "Come Nov. 2, we're going to send George Bush out of town and that will not be a myth."
Edwards also called Bush "out of touch."
"And the problem is — if you don't see a problem, you can't fix it," Edwards said at a Colorado event on Tuesday. "He can't fix what's happening in Iraq, health care, the economy because he doesn't see it."
Both campaigns are already launching pre-emptive strikes, e-mailing lists of what each campaign calls the "top 20 myths and distortions" that each candidate has spread about his opponent's domestic policy record.
War on Iraq, War on Health Care
While Kerry's strategists have gone from downplaying expectations to predicting victory, the Bush team tried to win points by appealing to conservatives and casting Kerry's Senate record as that of a confirmed liberal.
"The more people hear from George Bush and John Kerry, the more likely they're going to vote to re-elect the president because the president is right on the issues," Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, told FOX News. "America doesn't need a Massachusetts liberal today."
Both sides have acknowledged the possibility that Wednesday night's domestic policy debate could turn to homeland security and the War on Terror because those matters affect the military budget and other federal financing.
"Listen, I'm looking forward to debating tomorrow night on domestic issues that will make a difference. I'm looking forward to probably spending a little time, hopefully, on the War on Terror because there's a big difference of opinion on the War on Terror," Bush told his supporters in Paradise Valley, Ariz.
"You really can't talk about homeland security unless you talk about terrorism and Iraq," added Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Wednesday's debate will resemble the first one between the candidates, where the two stood at lecterns. The second debate, held Oct. 8, was conducted in a town hall-style format where audience members, not the moderator, asked questions.
Each candidate has two minutes to respond to a question, after which the other candidate has a minute and a half to rebut the position. The moderator may extend discussion of that question for one minute, calling first upon the candidate who initially received the question.
In the first debate on Sept. 30, 62.5 million viewers tuned in. Only 46.7 million viewers tuned in to the second debate on Oct. 8, a drop of about 16 million — though that is almost 10 million more viewers than those who watched the second matchup between Bush and Al Gore in 2000.
Like the last two debates, which each lasted 90 minutes, only about 17 to 18 questions will be asked of the candidates. Though the last two debates were held in battleground states of Florida and Missouri, respectively, Bush appears to have a slim lead in Arizona, which he won 51 to 45 over Gore in 2000. Arizona has 10 electoral votes.
FOX News' Jim Angle, Carl Cameron, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.