Stand ins man the stage during final preparations for third Bush Kerry presidential debate
Jim Bourg  /  Reuters
A technician and a director make final preparations for the third debate of the 2004 presidential campaign on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 10/15/2004 11:15:11 AM ET 2004-10-15T15:15:11

As President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry limber up for their final debate in Tempe., Ariz., on Wednesday, their race appears to be on a knife’s edge, with victory on Nov. 2 in sight for both men, but with the decisive states too close to call.

The crucial audiences are not here in South Dakota or other solidly pro-Bush states, but across the state line in Minnesota and Iowa, states which, along with Wisconsin, are prime take-away targets for Bush. He narrowly missed winning all three in 2000.

An Oct. 3-5 Gallup survey of likely voters in Wisconsin, a state Bush lost by only 0.2 percentage points four years ago, shows 49 percent supporting Bush and 46 percent supporting Kerry, while two percent back independent candidate Ralph Nader.

Worrisome for Bush is the tie in Colorado, a state where Republicans have roughly a 180,000 advantage in registered voters and a state that Bush carried by 145,000 votes in 2000.

The Oct. 3-6 Gallup Colorado survey poll found the candidates tied at 49 percent among likely voters, with Nader at one percent.

Colorado’s nine electoral votes are pretty much a necessity for Bush in order for him to reach the 270 electoral votes he needs to win a second term. Conversely, it would be difficult for Kerry to prevail if he lets Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota slip away to Bush.

Moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Wednesday's 90-minute debate begins at 9 p.m. ET and is to cover domestic issues.

As the rivals make their way to the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, the mood and expectations are strikingly different from four weeks ago. Pundits, such as USA Today’s Walter Shapiro, are now writing columns speculating about what a Kerry presidency would be like.

Although his momentum is fragile, Kerry appears to have just a bit more of it at this moment than Bush does. This, of course, could change in a heartbeat, with a revealing statement or a gaffe by either candidate.

Kerry’s recent comments about wanting terrorists to be “a nuisance” were published on the brink of a debate that is supposed to be focused on domestic issues.

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Video: ''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance,'' Kerry told the New York Times.

He went on to say, “As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.”

Bush may disregard the agreed-upon domestic focus of Wednesday night’s debate and challenge Kerry on this remarkable statement, arguing that the goal is not to reduce terrorists to “a nuisance,” but to destroy them, and that if Americans don’t defeat al-Qaida and other terrorists, none of the nation’s domestic spending goals and desires will much matter.

Republicans quickly sought to put the worst possible interpretation on Kerry’s remarks.

“The idea that you can have an acceptable level of terrorism is frightening,” said former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. “How do you explain to the people who are beheaded … that we're going to tolerate a certain acceptable [level] of terrorism, and that acceptable level will exist and then we'll stop thinking about it?”

Allegation of short-changing
In the past few weeks, Kerry has done something risky, but which may be working for him, or at least, has not backfired on him: appealing to war weariness in Americans and cultivating the idea that Bush has been short-changing domestic spending by decrying, as he did in the first debate in Miami, the “$200 billion that could have been used for health care, for schools, for construction, for prescription drugs for seniors, and (instead) it's in Iraq.”

Neither Bush nor Kerry has demanded that voters confront the need to choose between spending money on defeating terrorists and spending money on domestic goals.

But Kerry’s subtext has been the phrase used in his New York Times interview: ''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives.”

Most pundits accepted it as a given that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, would irrevocably define the nature of this presidential campaign.

It is remarkable that Kerry seems to be changing that definition and altering the frame of reference.

If Kerry defeats Bush on Nov. 2, this decision to re-frame the war in Iraq in terms of money not available for domestic spending will turn out to have been one very shrewd move on Kerry’s part.

If Kerry wins, it would also be the first time in American history that a president has been ousted in the middle of the war.

Of course, Wednesday night’s face-off will not be purely about Iraq and whether Americans must sacrifice domestic spending for Iraq spending. Tax policy and the cost of medical care are likely to be swatted back and forth.

Same-sex marriage issue
It will fascinating to see whether Bush turns his focus on a sleeper issue that so far has played little role in the campaign: Kerry’s vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which permits states to refuse to legally recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Back in 1996, the issue seemed absurdly theoretical to some; Kerry himself called it gratuitous gay bashing at the time.

But the topic has new urgency with the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Court to over-ride the state legislature and mandate legal recognition of same-sex marriages.

Expect Bush to roll out at least one reference to the National Journal’s annual vote rating of members of Congress.

Video: The non-partisan National Journal, essential reading for all Washington policy wonks, isn’t usually fodder for campaign attacks.

But last year, in its assessment of votes cast in 2003, National Journal found that Kerry’s voting record was more liberal than 97 percent of his Senate colleagues, making him, for 2003, the most liberal member of the body.

National Journal editor Charles Green was quick to explain that “Kerry missed a lot of votes in 2003 — 37 of the 62 that were being used in the vote ratings,” so the magazine’s rating was a bit skewed.

Green added, “If the standard is votes over a lifetime, Kerry isn't the most liberal senator. By that measure, Kerry is the 11th-most-liberal senator, coming in below such Democrats as Paul Sarbanes of Maryland … and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.”

The fact, impossible to mince or hedge, is that Bush is a distinctly conservative Republican on social issues and the initiator of a hawkish pre-emptive foreign policy, while Kerry is commensurately liberal on social issues and anti-hawkish on foreign policy.

The electorate hasn’t had as clear an ideological choice since 1984, when Ronald Reagan faced Walter Mondale.

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