WASHINGTON — President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will meet in their final presidential debate on Wednesday night after two encounters that polls suggest weakened Bush and fortified Kerry, leaving some Republicans concerned that the final 20 days of the contest would be far more competitive than they had expected.
Republicans who had been confident of victory before the debates said they were uneasy as Bush returns to a format — 90 minutes of questions from one moderator — that has seemed to play to the strength of Kerry, a 20-year senator and former prosecutor. Kerry burnished his credentials in the first two debates, averting an early collapse that Republicans had sought, and Bush has lost some or all of the lead he had before their first debate in Florida on Sept. 30, a series of recent polls suggests.
Republicans are also concerned that the debate is the only one devoted to domestic policy, and polls show Kerry has an edge on many of those issues.
"By any objective measure — if Republicans are going to be intellectually honest with ourselves — prior to the first debate, we were pretty comfortable," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "It was a chance for the president to lay him out and just lock it. In the past two weeks, that's been turned on its head."
Gary Bauer, a conservative who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, said that Bush's performance had improved markedly in the second meeting and that he was confident Bush could take advantage of what he said were openings Kerry provided in the first two debates. But, he said, "I don't mean to be disloyal to my friends, but I think the Kerry people are feeling pretty good about things."
Bush's aides, expressing confidence, pointed to polls finding that voters were uncomfortable with the idea of Kerry as a wartime president, and some show Bush holding a slight edge over his rival.
Still, some Democrats argued this contest was comparable to the election of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter saw his standing plummet after two debates in which Ronald Reagan — who had been belittled by Carter throughout the fall — was widely viewed as winning the debates, and perhaps the election, simply by exceeding the low expectations that Carter had established for him. That has been a historical parallel that Bush's aides have resisted, saying a more apt comparison was Franklin D. Roosevelt's re-election campaigns during World War II.
In this remarkable tight race, aides to Bush and Kerry said the candidates were heading into the final debate, as well as the final phase of the campaign, with aggressive plans to return to what has become familiar territory for the two political parties over the past 30 years.
Kerry is going to turn up his efforts to portray Bush as a tool of special interests, an approach he has signaled in his campaign speeches and in television advertisements, including one in which Kerry said the "middle class is paying the bigger share of America's tax burden, and the wealthiest are paying less." It was a line of attack, albeit worded less aggressively, reminiscent of the "people versus the powerful" argument that Al Gore made in the closing days of his contest in 2000. Democrats said it was designed to appeal to supporters of Ralph Nader, the independent candidate who looms as a continuing threat to Kerry, and to rouse Democratic voters that some recent polls found have been left somewhat unmoved by Kerry.
"The reason you're hearing this tough populism is because he's underperforming with some of these groups, and this is a way of bringing it home," said Donna Brazile, who managed Gore's campaign in 2000.
Bush's aides mocked the approach as crass class warfare, saying it had not worked for Gore and would fail again this time.
"Who was the last Democrat who got elected on a class-warfare platform?" said Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager. "Harry Truman in 1948. They are running in 2004 the same way they are running in 2000."
But Kerry's aides argued that Bush's record provided them numerous opportunities to try to paint his policies — on subjects like tax cuts and health care — as benefiting the wealthy.
"Gore won the election," said Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser. "And if he had used it earlier, he would have been president."
If Kerry is looking to 2000, Bush is drawing on 30 years of Republican political strategy as he seeks to portray Kerry as a liberal, particularly on issues of spending, taxes and the military. That is designed to stir excitement among Bush's base Republican supporters and appeal to undecided voters, Bush's aides said.
"If you say to swing voters, what are the most important issues, they are going to say terror and taxes," Mehlman said. "And in terms of taxes, this is the most liberal Democrat who has run since Walter Mondale pledged to raise taxes when he ran in 1984."
A senior Kerry aide, Michael D. McCurry, responded: "It's like the greatest hits of the 1970s and 1980s. That's a message that resonates peculiarly with the Republican base. But the irony is that it helps to shore up our base, too."
Since the debate in Tempe, Ariz., will be the third and final one, history suggests that it will draw fewer viewers. It will also be competing with the second game of the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox playoffs.
Yet the debate could prove particularly consequential because the race continues to be so close, because of the high number of voters who watched the first two debates, and because the pace of television advertisements in battleground states has been so heavy that at this point, they are a blur to many voters, canceling each other out before an increasingly numbed audience.
"It would be good for Bush to reclaim this aura of presidential authority and at the same time have one or two opportunities to pierce through Kerry's veneer and tag him as a liberal on something," said Nelson Warfield, who was press secretary to Bob Dole in when Dole was the Republican presidential nominee in 1996.
Bush's aides and some Republicans said they were not worried about how the race was shaping up, saying they had always expected it to tighten.
"Kerry gained some traction because the expectations were set so low," said Sig Rogich, a veteran Republican consultant. "But I think it's now the president's to lose. I don't think the American people are going to want to change direction at this particular time."
Fabrizio, the Republican pollster, said that Bush's advisers were expressing confidence at their peril.
"We should be concerned," he said. "The race is close. This whole 'We expected it to get close again' thing, I just don't buy it."
In a sign that the race is moving into its final phase, the campaigns have reduced the number of states where they are placing advertisements, a generally reliable way of measuring what states each side views as being in play.
The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project and Nielsen Monitor Plus — which monitors political advertising nationwide — released a joint study on Tuesday showing that the battleground, at least as far as campaign commercials are concerned, had narrowed mainly 10 states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Both campaigns have pulled out of Missouri, which Kerry had once hoped to win back from Bush but which is now widely expected to fall into Bush's column. Arizona, Louisiana, West Virginia, Washington state and Oregon are also among the states that were once considered competitive but are not being heavily targeted by either campaigns.
They have, however, increased spending in Colorado, a state Bush had been favored to win but which now appears deadlocked, according to the study.