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THE FINAL DEBATE | JEFF JACOBY

One answer not given

AMERICA tuned in to a riveting encounter last night. It was a gripping duel between men of extraordinary skill, discipline, and focus -- an event well worth the time required to watch it. But you don't need me to tell you about the Red Sox-Yankees game. So let's talk about the Bush-Kerry debate instead.

As these debates have gone, it wasn't awful. Kerry was a bit less sharp than in the first two engagements, Bush turned in his most confident performance yet, but both men held their own. Some of the debate was interesting; some was even charming. For the sheer good feeling they inspired, the president's humble and loving words about his wife could hardly have been improved on; Kerry's self-deprecating joke about marrying up ("me more than others . . . but I can take it") was actually quite funny. Alas, those were their answers to the very last question -- you had to suffer through a lot of spinach before finally getting to enjoy that bit of dessert.

And what a lot of spinach there was. Call me a cranky libertarian conservative, but just once I would like to hear a candidate for president answer a question by saying, "Sorry, the Constitution limits the role of the federal government -- the issue you're asking about is one for the states or the private sector, not Washington."

There was no talk of limited government last night. Instead there was talk of: firehouses not having enough firefighters, a shortage of flu vaccine, the rise in health insurance premiums, how laid-off workers should attend community college, the need for more grade-school math and science, the high price of gasoline and medicine, a minimum wage for unskilled workers, education for parents who don't speak English -- and those are just the ones I managed to scribble down. There was even a mention of ceiling fans from China. Where does the Constitution say that any of these are properly the concern of the federal government?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about last night's debate was the open and unabashed talk, especially by Bush, of religion and prayer. It was interesting not because it was unusual but precisely because it isn't. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, political leaders in American speak often of God and the influence of their faith. It is one of the things that most distinguishes American culture and politics -- and I use "distinguishes" in both of its senses.

Still, I do wish Kerry would explain sometime why it is OK for his faith to shape his stands on social welfare programs and the environment when he vows never to let his stands on abortion and embryonic stem cells be shaped by that same faith. Just another Kerry contradiction, I suppose.

No more debates, and almost no more campaign. Election Day is in sight at last. Hallelujah!

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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