Often people look at the debate between Democrats and Republicans as Tweedledee/Tweedledum, but in this election, there is a higher level of tension and angst.
Utah State University President Kermit Hall — a presidential historian — said the distinction between candidates is what sets this election apart from those of the past. But the issues haven't been as broad ranging.
"I don't think in recent memory that Americans have quite as distinctive a choice between two presidential candidates," Hall said.
There are substantial differences in style, world outlook and differences in their ability to fully grasp all of the issues that are out there.
"George Bush is good-evil — John Kerry is kind of the nuance and uncertainty. . . . In addition to all of those, these two individuals simply view government in a different way," Hall said.
He said that Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy were different people, but their policies ultimately weren't all that different. Bill Clinton was the great centralist, and that is one of the reasons he defeated George W.'s father.
"But what is going to happen with Social Security, what's going to happen with health care, what's going to happen with pre-emptive use of American power? These are significant departures."
Additionally, Hall said, the international portion of these debates is distinctive as it has been driven by the American presence in Iraq.
Similarly, Nixon and Kennedy locked horns over the Quemoy-Matsu (Formosa) crisis with communist China, and there was repeated discussions about nuclear holocaust in Vietnam.
"But I don't think the Vietnam War ever got the level of debate going in the presidential campaign that Iraq has," Hall said.
He said Vietnam was a new experience, and Americans hadn't figured it out. But they learned a big lesson from it — and that is to be wary.
"I think really the ghost at the banquet at this entire campaign is Vietnam. . . . I don't think Americans are eager to make the same mistake — what is unclear is whether or not Iraq is Vietnam," Hall said.
Hall said prior to Wednesday's debates, because of the candidates' fundamental differences, he expected the final debate to be a page turner.
But he said neither Bush nor Kerry stepped up to the plate on crucial domestic issues.
"I didn't find much level of real engagement with the issues," Hall said. "I think they are both, at this juncture, more concerned about what they are going to lose than they were concerned about what they were going to gain, and the result was a debate that underscores their differences."
Hall said if he had to score it he would call it a draw.
In a KSL-TV poll taken Wednesday night by SurveyUSA after the debate, 57 percent of those interviewed say Bush clearly won the debate while 25 percent say Kerry won.
However, members of VoteProject and Associated Students of the University of Utah Government Relations board sided with Donald Dunn, Utah's Democratic Party chairman, saying Kerry came off better.
"John Kerry demonstrated the strength and character we need in a commander and chief. He's a president for the middle class. . . ," Dunn said. "He held Bush accountable for the past four years. Bush seems to be 0-3 in the debates and with the middle class, 0-4 on the past four years. Bush can't defend his record, so he attacks Kerry."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Kerry debates well but he can't run from a liberal 20-year record in the Senate.
"I can't name one substantive law he's authored, and that's because he's so far left no one can work with him. He tried to defend himself tonight by saying he's passed 56 bills in 20 years — I passed 43 just last year," Hatch said. "If, after 20 years, he couldn't get 534 members of Congress to agree with him to pass substantive legislation, how in the world does he expect to get 260 million Americans to agree with him as president?"