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Bush, Kerry prepare for final debate
Updated: 2004-10-13 14:31

US President George W. Bush and Democratic Senator John Kerry are set to meet in a final debate that could give one of the White House rivals a critical boost heading into the last three weeks of the race.

The stakes are high for both candidates, with polls showing the president and the Massachusetts senator in a dead heat heading into Wednesday's showdown on domestic issues like taxes, jobs and health care.

The televised encounter at Arizona State University is the last set campaign event before the three-week dash to the November 2 election, and gives Bush and Kerry a final chance to make their case before an audience of millions of likely voters.

Bush arrived in Arizona on Tuesday night for a campaign event with supporters and a dinner with Senator John McCain, his bitter foe in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries but now an ally on the campaign trail.

"What I'm going to tell the people tomorrow night is we're not going to go back to the days of tax and spend," Bush told supporters in Arizona, criticising Kerry as a big-spending liberal whose health care plan would amount to a government takeover.

Kerry stayed in New Mexico to watch the Boston Red Sox lose to the New York Yankees in the first game of the American League baseball playoffs. He plans to travel to Arizona on Wednesday.

Kerry aides said he would grill Bush on the job losses, rising gas prices, increasing budget deficits and growing rolls of the uninsured that have developed during the Bush administration's first term.

"His record is so weak, he really has trouble articulating a defence for the last four years," Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart said of Bush.

Kerry leads Bush on most domestic issues in polls, including the economy, jobs, health care, education, the environment and the budget deficit. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found taxes and terrorism were the only two domestic issues where Bush held an advantage.

Democrats once believed economic issues would be their ticket to the White House, but the escalating battle over the war in Iraq eclipsed their domestic message for most of the year.

But Bush has mounted a strong counter-attack focused on Kerry's 20-year Senate voting record, charging he supported higher taxes, greater spending and more government intervention.

The attacks have had some influence, with 48 percent saying in a Gallup poll that they believed their taxes would increase if Kerry wins the White House, while 34 percent expected taxes to stay the same under Kerry and 13 percent said they will decrease.

Kerry has promised to raise taxes on those making more than $200,000 but says he will provide targeted tax breaks to lower-income earners.

The Bush campaign released two new television ads on Tuesday slamming Kerry's health care plan, which independent experts say will cost about $900 billion over 10 years. The Bush campaign, citing a report by a conservative think tank, says it will cost $1.5 trillion.

"John Kerry and liberals in Congress. Big government-run health care," the narrator of one of the new ads says. The other ad says: "This $1.5 trillion dollar government program puts bureaucrats, not your doctor ... in charge of your health care decisions."

The Kerry campaign responded with their own ad that features Kerry promising to allow Americans to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada.

"For the last four years, one man has stood between America and lower cost prescription drugs -- George Bush," Kerry said in the ad.

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