WASHINGTON — Three-quarters of the way through the presidential/vice presidential debate season, things have not gone the way the Bush campaign had planned. And Wednesday night, they may face a difficult challenge in putting everything right.
A brief recap: The first debate, which the Bush campaign hoped would be a knockout punch, didn't work out when the president led with his chin, repeating the same lines over and over between grimaces. The veep debate, a battle of wits between the grumpy old man next door and a game-show host, was essentially a wash. And the second duel between the men at the top of the ticket may have made the president's followers feel better - Mr. Bush was animated, maybe too much so at times - but in the end few voters were probably swung one way or the other, if one believes polls.
So going into Wednesday night's final contest, we have the race we all assumed we'd have months ago. Very tight. Very uncertain. And it may stay that way all the way up to Election Day. But if the first debate held great peril for Senator Kerry - fighting to get off the ropes, or at the least the perception that he was on them - this third meeting holds more dangers for the president.
The president's problem is not that he needs a decisive blow. Such moments are rare. Bush's problem, rather, is more substantive. As the focus of these debates switches from foreign policy to domestic concerns, he faces a few tough challenges.
First, his perceived strength on foreign policy - that he's a principled leader who won't suddenly abandon course - becomes something of a weakness. Not wavering before terrorists is one thing; not wavering before bad economic news is another. The news is not all bad. Yes, the unemployment rate is only 5.4 percent and yes, home ownership is at an all-time high. But many people simply are not comfortable with how things are going. The new employment figures from last Friday were very disappointing: 96,000 new jobs when the country needs 150,000 just to hold steady. The stock market is bumping up one week and dropping the next.
"Stay the course" isn't what people want to hear right now.
The Bush team's other response will probably be what it's been this entire race: Make the subject John Kerry. Kerry may say he won't raise taxes on anyone except the rich, Bush will argue, but you know he will. He's a liberal. That's what liberals do. And how else is Kerry going to pay for all his new programs?
This has been the standard GOP response to every Democrat seeking office since the 1980s, and there's good reason to attack Kerry's economic plan. It's going to be extremely difficult to pay for all the programs he's proposed - the tuition tax credits, the expanded military, the healthcare plan - and still halve the budget deficit by 2009. Raising taxes on top earners will help pay for some, but it probably won't be enough.
Of course, that doesn't mean that Kerry will raise taxes. He could simply do what the president has done - ignore the fact that the numbers are growing dramatically out of whack and let the deficit grow. Indeed the numbers for both these candidates' economic plans do not add up, according to experts.
And that bring us to the more serious problem. Bush's conservative credentials, on anything other than tax cuts - which he never seems to pay for - are not exactly above reproach. After years of declines, the number of people working for the federal government has grown under the Bush administration. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it's not really part of the Republican handbook. The president's prescription-drug plan, which has left many seniors confused and some angry, will cost a half-trillion dollars over the next 10 years. And whether or not you support No Child Left Behind, there's no doubt it's increased the federal government's role in education.
In short, the president can pound away at Kerry as a "tax and spend liberal" all he likes. It's just not clear how that's any worse than a "spend and spend conservative." If he's a conservative at all.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.