Q&A: Third presidential debate

With focus on domestic issues, Bush and Kerry discussed the economy, healthcare - and their wives.

The Christian Science Monitor's Liz Marlantes attended the third presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday night.

What did you think about the candidates' approach to the debate Wednesday night?

Stylistically, President Bush was obviously conscious of trying to correct some of the tonal problems he was criticized for in the first two debates - i.e., appearing testy or too aggressive. After some wobbly moments at first, he grew more relaxed, smiled more, and generally presented a warmer, more thoughtful persona (though he did indirectly attack the moderator again - with a crack about not trusting "leading news organizations!") To me, it was more reminiscent of the George W. Bush who ran in 2000, and I would guess it was effective with viewers.

Kerry, on the other hand, was virtually the same in style and tone in all three debates - which was important for him, since he went into the debates as the less-familiar candidate. A constant, unchanging demeanor in three debates helps give viewers a better sense of him, and has probably helped undercut the "flip-flopping" charge.

Both men continued to attack - Bush in particular was working hard to portray Kerry as a "liberal from Massachusetts," while Kerry continued to turn all his answers back to the president's record. But the tone was less harsh overall.

One interesting note: Kerry looked into the camera repeatedly, giving his answers to the TV viewers rather than the moderator or the people in the hall. Bush, on the other hand, only did it on a handful of occasions - but it was probably more effective in those few moments when he did.

Did the switch to domestic issues make a difference for either candidate?

I thought it made a big difference overall, in that this was a lower-key debate than the other two. Foreign policy - and specifically Iraq - is where the energy and tension has primarily been in this campaign, and so this debate had a lot less fire and zip to it.

But I also thought it made a bit of a difference for Bush, in a positive way. Although domestic issues generally favor Kerry (with polls showing Kerry holding an edge over Bush on most of them), Bush came into office as a Republican president who was unusually focused on domestic issues - and is comfortable speaking about things like education, which has long been seen as a Democratic issue. Interestingly, he spoke several times Wednesday night about his time as governor of Texas - drawing on that experience to talk about issues like immigration. On some issues, like Social Security, he presents himself as the candidate who's more innovative and forward-looking, arguing Kerry represents "more of the same."

Were there any surprises in the debate?

No big surprises. There were a few questions that the candidates obviously weren't expecting - like the one about the flu vaccine shortage.

What were the high points of the debate?

One very interesting moment was the question about religion. Bush is often quite eloquent on this subject - and he was again Wednesday night, talking in simple language about how he prays. But he also edged into territory that might make some Americans uncomfortable - linking his religion explicitly to his foreign policy, saying he believes God wants everyone to be free.

I thought another good moment was the question at the end, when the candidates were asked to reflect on what it's like being surrounded by strong women. It was an easy question for Bush - he often talks on the stump about the influence Laura has had on him, and he added a bit more Wednesday, with an anecdote about how he met her. He also joked that she told him "to stand up straight and not scowl."

It was a trickier question for Kerry, because his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has been a bit more controversial on the trail, and is probably known primarily to many voters for her vast fortune. But he I thought he effectively handled it - cracking a joke about how all three men married up, and "some would say me more than others."

Ultimately, will these debates make a difference to those undecided voters?

Who knows? But I think they could. Polls have consistently shown undecided voters have been unhappy with Bush's policies - yet uncertain about Kerry. These debates seem to have gone some way toward easing those concerns - allowing viewers to get a closer look at Kerry. He has scored particularly well in post-debate polls with undecided voters, including in this last debate, according to a snap CBS poll. An ABC poll showed the debate was seen as a draw by voters overall.

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