In a wide-ranging debate on domestic issues, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry simultaneously laid bare some of the clearest policy contrasts of campaign while making efforts to humanize themselves and connect with voters before heading into the final stretch of the race.
Both men kept up the attacks that have become a mainstay of this campaign - with Senator Kerry repeatedly hammering at Mr. Bush's record, and Bush casting Kerry as a big-spending liberal. But the encounter was less edgy, and in some ways less lively, than previous debates, in large part because the issue that has proven the biggest source of controversy in the campaign - Iraq - was not a major topic of discussion.
Instant polls taken after the debate either gave the win to Kerry or showed it to be a draw. Certainly, Bush presented a more relaxed and genial persona, after being criticized as petulant and overly aggressive in the first two debates.
In many ways, his demeanor was more reminiscent of the George W. Bush of the 2000 campaign, presenting himself as a practical innovator on domestic policy issues from education to Social Security. Notably, he highlighted his time as governor of Texas on several occasions, such as when talking about immigration.
Bush also intensified his efforts to portray Kerry as a liberal, saying Kerry's "rhetoric doesn't match his record," and that "there is a mainstream of American politics and you sit on the far left bank."
Kerry gave a cool, steady performance that was stylistically similar to the previous two debates - perhaps further undercutting the "flip-flop" charge, and allowing viewers to come away with a clearer sense of his character. He spoke directly into the camera throughout much of the debate, speaking to the viewers at home rather than the moderator or the people in the hall.
In all three encounters, Kerry worked to steer the focus onto Bush's record, though he didn't manage to provoke as many testy reactions this time. A rare exception came when the discussion drifted to foreign policy and Kerry accused Bush of saying he wasn't "that concerned" about catching Osama bin Laden. That's "one of those exaggerations," Bush shot back. "Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."
Bush managed to hit Kerry for his previous debate comment about preemptive action needing to pass a "global test," as well as for a more recent comment in a New York Times Magazine article about wanting to reduce terrorism to a "nuisance."
But on the whole, the discussion stayed on the domestic front, with both candidates often veering into a wonkish level of detail in discussing policy ideas.
Kerry continued his efforts to portray Bush as out of touch with the problems of average Americans, arguing he would offer a better approach on jobs and the economy - though not necessarily a complete solution. When it comes to jobs being shipped overseas, he said, "outsourcing is going to happen." But, he added, Bush has not done everything possible to level the playing field, adding that the president only "discovered Boeing during the course campaign after I'd been talking about it for months."
Bush responded by saying directly into the camera: "Let me talk to the workers," and explaining, "you've got more money in your pocket as a result of the tax relief we passed and [Kerry] opposed."
Healthcare was a recurrent topic: Kerry repeatedly stressed the growing number of Americans without coverage, even turning a question about the flu vaccine back to the issue of the uninsured.
Bush responded by attacking Kerry's proposal to offer Americans the same coverage as members of Congress as unaffordable: "If every family in America signed up, like the senator suggested, if would cost us $5 trillion over 10 years."
Some of the most interesting points of the debate came on topics of morality. With gay marriage an issue in the campaign, moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates whether they believed homosexuality was a matter of choice.
Bush replied "I don't know," adding that he believed in the importance of tolerance - but opposes gay marriage. Kerry responded by saying "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 born as," adding "It's not a choice." Kerry believes in civil unions and equal rights for gay and lesbian couples - though does not support gay marriage. Some Republicans later criticized his comments about the vice president's daughter as overly personal.
Both candidates' most eloquent moments may have come when asked about how religion informs policy decisions. Bush responded in simple language about how he prays. "I pray a lot," he said. "I pray for strength. I pray for wisdom. I pray for our troops in harm's way. I pray for my family." But he also edged into territory that might make some voters uncomfortable - linking his religion explicitly to his foreign policy, saying he believes God wants everyone to be free.
Kerry responded to a question about Catholic archbishops telling church members not to vote for him because of his position on abortion by saying: "I grew up a Catholic. I was an altar boy. I know that throughout my life this has made a difference to me." But, he added, "everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people."
Both candidates may have had their most humanizing moments at the end, when they were asked to reflect on what it's like being surrounded by strong women. Bush, who often talks on the stump about the influence Laura has had on him, expanded on that line with an anecdote about how he met her and it was "love at first sight." He also joked that she told him "to stand up straight and not scowl."
Kerry, whose wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is known primarily to many voters for her vast fortune, joked about how all three men married up, adding: "some would say me more than others." Referring to his wife and daughters, he added, "I can sometimes take myself too seriously, and they surely don't let me do that."