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THE FINAL DEBATE | THOMAS OLIPHANT

Bush's dodge and duck

PHOENIX
PART WAY through a response to one of John Kerry's statements about healthcare needs in this country, President Bush ran out of gas and simply stopped talking.

Bush had appeared to object to Kerry's citation of studies by two news organizations that questioned the accuracy of many of the president's statements on the issue.

He said he wasn't sure whether citing news organizations was an effective way to make a point, but then he stopped and said, "Oh, never mind." After a bit too much silence he then renewed his relentless attacks on Kerry's allegedly profligate liberalism -- Bush's only consistent theme of his last evening of truly mass exposure before the election.

In effect, he said "never mind" a lot last night. Bush showed up, but in a jarring turnabout from his loud, hostile, and acerbic performance at the second debate with Kerry in St. Louis last Friday, he was not playing vigorously or with effect even in a losing cause.

This was, by contrast, John Kerry's third opportunity to increase his standing with the American people, and he once again took full advantage of it. Challengers who have a chance to talk unfiltered and unchallenged before a mass audience about the future, who can joke about their wealth as well as make a clear and specific commitment to raising the minimum wage by 40 percent, are on the way to being called incumbents.

Bush was willing a few times to speak with conviction -- for example, on his beloved, three-year-old legislation to reform federal aid to public schools. But beyond that he retreated into little more than stale recitations of the words he was determined to have people remember about this encounter, all of them referring to Kerry -- Massachusetts liberal, tax and spend, weak on defense, for retreat in Iraq, Ted Kennedy, big government, on the fringe of the mainstream.

When he was asked to talk directly to a worker who had seen his job outsourced, Bush talked about public school reform. When he was asked a direct question about his civil rights record, he covered his dodge-and-duck response with another dissertation on the benefits of public school reform. With other direct ones -- like whether he wants the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights overturned, he simply didn't answer.

To get reelected, Bush's strategy is to bury Kerry in a blizzard of attacks via his speeches and paid television advertising. Two weeks ago it was to bury Kerry with a strong performance in their first debate. Bush failed, opened the door, and Kerry has come storming through it.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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