WASHINGTON — After two debates about strength, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry dueled to demonstrate compassion in their surprisingly subdued final encounter.
Although the first two encounters produced a succession of sharp exchanges on national security issues, the candidates generated far fewer sparks Wednesday night as they sparred over a wide range of domestic issues that hadn't been widely discussed in their race.
Bush began with an aggressive effort to paint Kerry as an ideological liberal, but he pursued that goal with steadily less energy as the debate proceeded. Instead, on issues such as immigration, gay rights and abortion, Bush sought to reestablish his image as a compassionate conservative by combining conservative positions on the issues with emphatic pleas for tolerance and understanding.
Kerry delivered a steadier and more confident performance than in last week's debate, the second face-off. From the outset, he sought to portray himself as a tribune of the middle class, promising to defend American workers and repeatedly charging that Bush's economic policies had favored the affluent.
And after seeming uncertain and defensive on social issues last week, Kerry expressed more unambiguous support for causes important to his political base -- from protecting abortion rights to defending affirmative action.
But the very breadth of the topics may have prevented the two men from establishing a real rhythm. The result may be that after three presidential debates, more than seven months of head-to-head campaigning and an unprecedented level of spending, the race for the White House moves into the final turn almost exactly where it began on the day after the Supreme Court stopped the vote recount in Florida nearly four years ago: in a virtual dead heat.
The instant ABC News survey of debate-watchers, though weighted heavily with Republicans, found they were divided almost equally, with 42% saying Kerry won and 41% picking Bush; independent voters, however, picked Kerry by 7 percentage points, which could signal broader gains in polls of the overall electorate in the next few days. In a CBS poll, undecided voters preferred Kerry, 39% to 25%.
Based on the initial viewer reactions, this encounter seems unlikely to dent the conclusion that the debates have done far more good for Kerry than for Bush, mostly by helping the senator ameliorate some of the negative impressions that voters developed about him amid intense attacks from Bush and his allies.
Also, Kerry succeeded in standing next to the president for three debates without suffering a major gaffe or appearing overmatched.
When the debates began, national polls gave Bush leads of as much as 7 or 8 percentage points; now almost all surveys show the race neck-and-neck. Just as important, almost all surveys show Bush attracting less than 50% of the vote -- a troubling sign for an incumbent this close to an election.
But with the polls so tight, and the parties preparing to mount vast get-out-the-vote operations that could tilt a close race either way, neither side can claim any meaningful advantage, many experts agree.
"We're in a virtual tie now," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "At this point, we're down to 2000 all over again -- equally balanced, highly polarized."
Though the two men challenged each other aggressively at points in the debate, it never appeared as if their hearts were into confrontation as much as during their first two encounters.
Early on, Bush attacked Kerry's congressional voting record as too liberal and sought to portray him as being out of the mainstream. Kerry accused Bush of ignoring problems such as declining access to healthcare and the loss of well-paying jobs.
But the debate steadily lost its edge, possibly because the questions often raised subjects that did not easily allow the candidates to develop sharp distinctions. The shift was especially noteworthy for Bush, who has seemed determined to draw ideological contrasts and who came into the debate with many Republicans believing he needed a clear victory to reverse a slow drift in the race away from him.
"If you thought this race was drifting toward Kerry, this did nothing to stop that," said veteran GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "I expected to see the president take the wood to Kerry, and he only took a couple of swipes."
As the debate proceeded, Bush put more emphasis on trying to ground himself in the center.
While he said he would oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, he also tried to signal empathy for their situation, saying, "If you can make 50 cents in the heart of Mexico, for example, or make $5 here in America, you're going to come here if you're worth your salt, if you want to put food on the table for your families."