WASHINGTON – Wrapping up the third debate and last header before the Nov. 2 presidential election (search), the Bush campaign said Wednesday night that President Bush (search) came with his A-game and showed he is a strong finisher. The team for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., responded that the senator is now 3-0 in the debates.
Some of the president's biggest supporters said the president's strong showing in this debate, which focused on domestic policy issues, would seem counterintuitive since Bush's greatest strength on the campaign trail until now has been foreign policy.
"The Bush campaign wanted the foreign policy debate first. Well, they thought that was the president's strength. That was the debate where he did the worst and here on domestic policy, both in the second debate, where half of it was on domestic policy, and all of this debate, the president was smashing. The only question in this debate is the effect it will have, whether with a smaller audience, it will really shift momentum in the president's favor," “Weekly Standard Editor” Fred Barnes said.
Instant polls of an uncommitted viewing audience said Kerry won the final showdown. According to a CBS poll, an unknown sample voted 39-25 in favor of Kerry, while an ABC poll of 566 viewers, the largest plurality being GOP-leaning voters, picked Kerry 42-41 percent. Of the party-identified audience, 80 percent of Democrats who watched said Kerry won while 73 percent of Republicans said Bush won.
A Gallup poll of 511 debate watchers showed Kerry was seen as the winner by 52 to 39 percent. Snap polls after the previous debates also showed Kerry ahead. Since the debates began, Kerry has closed a wide gap between in the polls between him and the president.
Kerry campaign officials said the senator did what he needed to by calling out the president's positions on a variety of issues. They said it was his best performance yet.
"Did you see the undecided swing voters moving toward John Kerry? He answered questions. George Bush couldn't answer questions," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said. "Obviously, you see … 11 straight polls [show] that John Kerry won both debates [prior to this one].”
"I think that John Kerry laid out a positive vision for the future. I think he did himself a lot of good tonight with the voters," Kerry Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill said.
Kerry campaign officials acknowledged that Wednesday night's showing was the president's best performance yet, but said the senator has the momentum going into the final 19 days of the campaign to win the race.
But the Bush team was breathing a sigh of relief after the debate, saying that the president needed a good night and that they believed he got one. They claimed the president was able to use Kerry's record in the Senate to paint him as outside of the mainstream and drove home the idea that he is a liberal with a short record of legislative accomplishments during his 20 years in the Senate. Republican officials said the president was able to "hang Kerry's record around his neck and make him wear it."
They also argued that Bush had the upper hand going into the final heat before Election Day.
"President Bush showed he's the strong finisher in this campaign when it comes to the debate season. We're going to take the momentum from this debate where president Bush clearly talked about with passion and energy, about his vision for the next four years, talked about why his policies are going to make America better," White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said.
While voters being polled directly after the debate saw a different outcome than many political pundits, several voters surveyed said Kerry overstepped his bound when he mentioned Vice President Cheney's openly gay daughter Mary. An audible groan could also be heard in Spin Alley, where the media and the campaign spinmeisters gather outside the debate hall.
During that point in the debate, the candidates were asked whether homosexuality is a choice; Kerry said it is not.
"And 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," Kerry said, adding that while he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, he also believes the states are able to manage marriage laws without a constitutional amendment.
After the debate, GOP pollster Ed Goeas, who conducted a focus group of 20 undecided voters, said Kerry's remark was a huge turnoff. Goeas said until that point, the group he surveyed had basically called the debate a draw, but when Kerry spoke of Mary Cheney, they considered it a cheap shot and were generally turned off by Kerry afterward.
Second Lady Lynne Cheney could not disguise her feelings about Kerry's remarks
"This is not a good man," she told supporters at a post-debate party outside Pittsburgh.
Telling the crowd that she spoke as an indignant mother, Cheney said, "What a cheap and tawdry political trick."
Political pundits also cried foul.
"I think it's dirty pool on the Kerry-Edwards campaign front," “Roll Call” Executive Editor Mort Kondracke said.
Kondracke said Edwards first brought up Mary Cheney's sexuality in the vice presidential debate and his mentioning it at that time was "utterly gratuitous." He said that he thinks Kerry's mentioning it was merely to try and stir up the conservative right who may not have known the fact.
"[ It was said for a] tactical reason and I don't think it was to appeal to the gay community," Kondracke said.
Cahill, however, called Mary Cheney's sexuality "fair game."
"I think it's an acknowledged fact, she seems to be very proud and open about her sexuality, her parents seem to be very proud of her. And she has been a subject of the campaign off and on," Cahill said. "It comes up. There are a lot of questions here about gay marriage and she is someone who is a major figure in the campaign. I think it's fair game and I think she has been treated very respectfully."
But “Weekly Standard” publisher Bill Kristol questioned Cahill's defense.
"What has Mary Cheney done that makes her sexuality fair game?" he asked. "I wonder if Kerry is not going to have to apologize tomorrow."
On Thursday, Kerry released a statement indicating he did not mean to politicize Mary Cheney's sexual preference.
“I love my daughters. They love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue,” Kerry said from the campaign trail in Las Vegas.
Aside from the issue of gay marriage, the two candidates sparred on several other issues, and Kristol said Bush won on a majority of the 20 questions asked. One of Bush's more able moments, said Kristol, was being able to key onto Kerry's record in the Senate.
Bush said Kerry had "no record of leadership" in the Senate.
"Has he been in the United States Senate for 20 years? He has no record on reforming of health care. No record at all. He introduced some 300 bills and he's passed five," Bush said.
Kerry responded that he has "actually passed 56 individual bills that I've personally written and, in addition to that, and not always under my name, there is amendments (sic) on certain bills."
Afterward, the Kerry campaign said that the senator has passed 56 bills out of the Senate that he has personally written or co-sponsored. That includes bills that passed out of the Senate and many also passed out of the House that had not been signed into law. In legislative parlance, being a co-sponsor does not mean being a principal in authoring it, but has joined onto it.
According to the Library of Congress, a House measure that was identical to Kerry's bill became law on Oct. 29, 2003, during Bush's presidency. That measure awarded a posthumanous congressional gold medal to baseball legend Jackie Robinson.
A search of the Library's online bill summaries shows that during Kerry's four terms in the Senate, four House bills that are identical to Kerry legislation passed both chambers and became law. Other measures that Kerry sponsored into law were 1999 legislation that created a women's business center program in the Small Business Administration; 1994 legislation naming the Murphy Federal Building in Waltham, Mass.; and two resolutions in October 1990 and 1991 identifying World Population Awareness Week.
Cahill said the focus on Kerry's record is a mistake for the Bush campaign, which is looking in the wrong direction.
"Lately, the Bush-Cheney campaign has spent an awful lot of time on labels and very little time on the future and things that really affect people's lives,” Cahill said. “They would rather talk about John Kerry's voting record from 1984 than about where they want to lead the country. You know, I think that that really washes right over people.”
Bartlett said Kerry's record is the only reliable information people can rely on, since he changes his mind from day to day.
"He was absolutely wrong when he claimed that he had signed on all those, he slipped into 56 bills. That absolutely was not true. The last time Sen. Kerry talked about his record, when he went before the Democratic Convention, he said, 'Judge me by my record.' That's the last thing we heard about it," Bartlett said.
Barnes and Kristol said regardless of polls, Bush had a "smashing victory" on Wednesday night.
"Clearly, it was President Bush's best debate, he seemed to marshal all of the arguments he wanted on all of these domestic issues, many of which are traditional Democratic issues, including health care ... on that one, in particular, John Kerry was on the defensive," Barnes said.
"I just think the most important thing about this debate is that Bush reminded an awful lot of Americans why they rallied to him after 9/11 and why at one point he was a very popular president. I think it was a very strong showing for President Bush," Kristol said.