WASHINGTON -- Democrat John F. Kerry came away from last night's final presidential debate having staked his claim for the White House with aggressiveness in the first encounter, likability in the second, and command of policy in the third, seeming to grow in credibility as a prospective president with each performance.
President Bush, who was widely perceived as inarticulate and at times surly in the first debate, recouped somewhat in a feisty second debate and reinforced his conservative credentials on domestic issues last night -- a performance that may well deliver more core supporters than he attracted four years ago.
But the president's campaign began the night, as it began the entire debate season, with higher hopes: to plant serious doubts about Kerry's fitness for office. And the debate season, which began with Bush seeking to solidify his lead in the race, ended with each candidate well-armed to fight to the finish.
Earlier in the day, Bush's aides had said the president would portray Kerry as an untrustworthy "tax and spend" liberal. And Bush started the debate with several lines, mocking Kerry's vow to bring back "pay as you go" government ("You pay and he goes ahead and spends") and declaring that Kerry is so liberal that Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts.
But while Bush persisted with his attack, it felt too preplanned. His first lines were dropped into the middle of a detailed discussion of fiscal restraint, with Kerry parrying with succinct descriptions of his fiscal plan, his health-care proposal, and even his Senate record on budget issues.
"Bob, anybody can play with these votes -- everybody knows that," Kerry told moderator Bob Schieffer after Bush attacked him for voting to raise taxes. "I broke with my party in order to balance the budget and Ronald Reagan signed into law the tax cut that we voted for. I voted for IRA tax cuts. I voted for small business tax cuts."
Viewers, by now, probably expected Kerry to be fluid and in command of such details, his smoothness serving almost as a defense and making Bush's attack lines seem forced by comparison.
After the discussion of fiscal policy, Bush gradually changed his approach, moving away from prepared lines and relying more on instinct and humor. That change seemed to serve him well.
When Schieffer asked which of a range of factors, including his administration's policies, were responsible for a 36 percent rise in health costs over four years, Bush quipped, "Gosh, I hope it's not the administration."
And, as in the first two debates, Bush became calmer as the night wore on, and his fractured sentences revealed an underlying authenticity, particularly when discussing his faith and paying tribute to his wife, Laura.
Bush's ability to convey his comfort in himself -- the sense of a good man trying to work through a tough job -- has long been a key to his bond with the American people.
Kerry has never had such a bond, but last night he seized on opportunities to speak personally and directly about his values, and came close to achieving Bush's level of openness. For a candidate perceived in polls as recent as two weeks ago as aloof and intellectual, Kerry's ability to connect with people on a human level probably struck some viewers as a surprise.
"I think that 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," Kerry said in response to an early question about Catholic clergy urging their followers not to vote for a candidate supporting abortion rights. "That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment, protect this Earth. That's why I fight for equality and justice. All of those things come out of that fundamental teaching and belief of faith."
With 20 days to go before the election, the debates will linger only in the form of vague impressions by the time the last voters enter the booth.
Kerry seemed to score well with health care, both in explaining his plan to allow people to buy into the same health services as members of the House and Senate and in blaming Bush for increased numbers of uninsured people on his watch.
"Five million people have lost their health insurance in this country," he said, in a typically fact-laden but clear answer. "You got about a million right here in Arizona, just shy, 950,000, who have no health insurance at all. Eighty-two thousand Arizonans lost their health insurance under President Bush's watch; 223,000 kids have no health insurance at all."
Bush declared that he believes greater government involvement in health care could lead to rationing, but offered few solutions of his own beyond his well-worn proposal for health savings accounts.
For his part, the president emphasized education, stressing his expansion of educational opportunity through loans and establishment of national K-12 testing standards under "No Child Left Behind." The "No Child" law is unpopular in many places, but Kerry didn't offer a strong rebuttal.
He was far more forceful in decrying Bush's failure to reenact the assault weapons ban, and expressed a passionate commitment to raising the minimum wage.
For Kerry, who entered the debates skittering on the edge of derision, a man seemingly lacking convictions, the force of his commitment probably resonated more than any particular issue.
He can only hope that voters remember in 20 days.