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Bush official: Kerry advantage temporary
Updated: 2004-10-15 01:10

Sen. John Kerry gained ground in the race for the White House during a just-completed series of campaign debates, a top official in President Bush's campaign conceded Thursday, but insisted that any advantage would prove fleeting.

"I think it was temporary," Marc Racicot, Bush's campaign chairman, told reporters on the morning after the president and Kerry collided in an intense final debate that sharpened differences over the war in Iraq, the economy, health care and abortion.

John Kerry makes a point while U.S. President George W. Bush looks on. [Reuters]
Racicot spoke as Bush and his Democratic rival set out on an 18-day campaign sprint to Election Day, concentrating their time and advertising on a dozen or so battleground states that will settle the election. The ubiquitous polls made their race a virtual dead heat.

The Democratic Party was quick to publicize what it called a debate "threepeat" for Kerry, launching two videos that mocked Bush's performance. One shows Bush talking about Osama bin Laden and telling White House reporters, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run," then denying during the debate that he had ever said it.

The other video shows Bush laughing when asked about uninsured Americans.

Kerry's day included an appearance before the AARP's national convention in Las Vegas. The organization of Americans 50 and older lent crucial support to controversial Medicare prescription drug legislation that Bush won from Congress a year ago. Kerry opposed the measure and polls now show support for it lags among older Americans.

Bush decided to skip the convention and first lady Laura Bush was taking his place. The president headed instead to a rally with Republican governors, also meeting in Las Vegas.

For undecided voters, Wednesday night's debate was a chance to comparison-shop. Kerry cast himself as champion of the little guy and Bush the guardian of the wealthy, branding the president as reckless with the federal budget and the use of American force. Bush labeled Kerry a do-nothing liberal senator with questionable credibility and an insatiable appetite for taxes. A question about federal spending and deficits yielded one of their sharpest exchanges.

"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said, charging that Kerry had voted to exceed budget ceilings 277 times.

"Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," Kerry said. "This president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see."

Both candidates said they believe marriage should remain a union of a man and a woman but that gay Americans should be treated with respect. Kerry cited Mary Cheney, the vice president's openly gay daughter and an official in the campaign, as a lesbian who probably would say being gay is not a matter of choice.

That drew a rebuke at a post-debate rally from Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife. She called Kerry "not a good man" and his reference to her daughter "a cheap and tawdry political trick."

In an interview Thursday with ABC Radio, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, said Mrs. Cheney "overreacted to this and treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion. I think that's a very sad state of affairs. ... I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences. ... It makes me really sad that that's Lynne's response."

The debate focused on a range of domestic issues and exposed deep differences:

_Kerry said a hike in the minimum wage to $7 an hour is "long overdue," and blamed Republican congressional leadership for preventing a vote on it. Bush mentioned a Republican senator's minimum wage plan that he said he had supported.

_On the assault weapons ban that expired last month, Kerry said it was a "failure of presidential leadership" that Bush had taken no concrete action to renew the law. Bush said background checks at gun shows and vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws were the way to keep deadly weapons off the streets.

_On affirmative action, Kerry said he opposes quotas but the nation has not moved far enough along to eliminate affirmative action. Bush also opposes quotas, but said he supports programs that help low- and middle-income families fund college, or small businesses get loans.


_Kerry said he would not appoint judges who would overturn the Supreme Court's 1973 abortion rights decision of Roe v. Wade. Bush said he had no issue test for judges, and reiterated his support for the ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.

Bush seemed to find his stride after two debates that most viewers and analysts thought he lost. He stifled most of the facial expressions that marred his first performance, ending each answer with a smile, though the camera occasionally captured him dropping it abruptly a few seconds later. After letting his voice rise to a shout during the second debate, Bush toned it down, speaking more softly.

Kerry was seen as the winner in two of three post-debate polls, while the third found the two tied.

Racicot quarreled with polls showing Kerry won the final debate and described the president's performance as "extraordinarily good."

Assessing all the debates combined, he said Kerry "did provide himself some temporary assistance with the first debate that got more leavened in the second debate and then began to dissipate at a whatever unknown rate with last night's performance.

"I just think he was on his heels most of the night," he added.

But Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe said the videos told the story.

"They capture the essence of George Bush's four years in office. Four years of wrong choices which he won't even own up to," he told reporters in a conference call.

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