In the very first question of Friday night's town hall debate, Sen. John Kerry was asked to explain charges that he's "too wishy-washy."
His response - that "the president didn't find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he's turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception" - immediately set the tone for a tough and tart exchange, in which both men wrestled to keep the focus on their opponent, launching attack after blistering attack for 90 straight minutes.
Senator Kerry turned almost every answer into an indictment of President Bush's record, following up most broadsides with his own policy prescriptions. He succeeded in putting Mr. Bush on the defensive, particularly in the early part of the debate, which focused on Iraq.
But Bush offered a sharper critique of Kerry's Senate record, calling it undistinguished and far to the left of mainstream America. Attacking Kerry (whom he at one point, by accident or not, referred to as "Senator Kennedy") on issues such as taxes and tort reform, he appeared to be laying the groundwork for next Wednesday's debate on domestic issues.
Two polls taken immediately after the debate showed viewers thought Kerry had won, although by a smaller margin than last week.
The harsh tone was all the more striking in the context of a town hall - a more intimate setting than a formal debate, with the candidates perched on stools in the round and fielding questions from the audience. Given the opportunity to interact with voters, the candidates might well have chosen to present a friendlier, lighter side, using this debate to show off their personal and social skills.
Bush in particular could have reaped some benefit from a more convivial appearance: After being criticized for seeming peevish in last week's foreign policy debate, a new Time magazine poll showed him trailing Kerry on likeability, reversing the president's long-held advantage on that front.
But with polls showing the election neck-and-neck, the stakes were clearly too high for either side to let up on the attacks. Indeed, the debate capped off a week of escalating rhetoric from both sides, a week in which Kerry found new ammunition to attack Bush's Iraq policy - from the Duelfer report on the lack of weapons of mass destruction to Paul Bremer's comments that the administration did not commit enough troops to secure the peace - and in which Bush launched a renewed line of attack on Kerry as too liberal to be president.
Held at Washington University, the town hall allowed uncommitted voters who were either leaning toward Bush or Kerry to question the candidates in person. The questions were screened and selected by moderator Charlie Gibson, giving an equal weight to foreign and domestic policy.
As in the first debate, the candidates clashed most sharply over the Iraq war and whether it has made the nation safer. This time, Bush more consistently cast the Iraq invasion in the context of the larger war on terror, reminding viewers that 9/11 changed everything.
He also sought to capitalize on Kerry's remark from last week that preemptive wars must meet a "global test." "That's the kind of mindset that says sanctions were working," Bush charged. "That's the kind of mindset that said, 'Let's keep it at the United Nations and hope things go well.'"
Kerry responded with one of his strongest attacks yet, saying: "The world is more dangerous today. The world is more dangerous today because the president didn't make the right judgments."
The most heated moment of the debate came after Kerry accused the president of choosing to go it alone in Iraq.
Although the format did not provide for a response at that time from the president, Bush interrupted moderator Charlie Gibson, saying insistently, "I got to answer this," and then confronting Kerry: "You tell Tony Blair we're going it alone. Tell Silvio Berlusconi we're going alone. Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone. There are 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices."
Kerry responded: "Mr. President, countries are leaving the coalition, not joining," and repeated his charge that America has suffered 90 percent of the casualties.
The debate did offer a few moments of levity - some unintended, as when Bush denied that there would ever be a reinstatement of the draft under his watch, saying it was a rumor "on the Internets."
Kerry drew the first real laugh of the night one hour into the debate, when he explained his plan to roll back Bush's tax cuts for Americans who earn more than $200,000 a year. "Looking around at this group here, I suspect there are only three people here who are going to be affected," he noted. "The president, me, and, Charlie, I'm sorry, you too."
But the fight over taxes was for the most part intensely serious, with Kerry arguing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy have deprived America of resources for things like homeland security, and Bush charging that Kerry, if elected, would raise taxes on average Americans.
Notably, Bush's strongest moments seemed to come toward the end of the debate, when the topics moved onto social and moral issues - areas where Kerry is often trying to walk a more delicate political line, allowing Bush to draw a clear contrast in styles.
A particularly revealing exchange came on a question about abortion. Kerry gave a long response, explaining that as a Catholic he deeply "respect[s] the belief about life and when it begins," but can't "take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that faith."
After a mocking aside about "trying to decipher" Kerry's answer, Bush replied: "My answer is we're not going to spend taxpayer dollars on abortion."