Magazine article Newsweek

To the Bitter End; Late Innings: The Debates Are over. the Drama's Getting Thick. the Knives Are out as the Candidates Climb aboard the Last-Chance Express

Magazine article Newsweek

To the Bitter End; Late Innings: The Debates Are over. the Drama's Getting Thick. the Knives Are out as the Candidates Climb aboard the Last-Chance Express

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Fineman (With Tamara Lipper, T. Trent Gegax, Susannah Meadows, Daniel Klaidman and Rebecca Sinderbrand)

Gentlemen of Yale that they are, or were, George W. Bush and John Kerry made a show of good fellowship when the contest was over: two guys, eager to hammer each other politically, acting like they were booking a tennis date. "Where are you going to be on election night?" the president wanted to know, shaking hands after their final debate last week at Arizona State in Tempe. In Boston, Kerry told him, with Teresa, at the town house on Beacon Hill. Bush will be at the ranch in Texas to vote, then at the White House to watch returns. A few winks and arm pats, and they went their separate ways.

So much for steely niceties. Now come the desperate hours, stretching from here until election night, when they will talk again--and, if 2004 is like 2000, no one will concede. Bush and Kerry are crisscrossing battleground states with a clear message: the other guy is profoundly unfit for office. In four and a half hours of largely decorous televised debates--watched by more than 160 million viewers--Kerry and Bush traded substantive accusations on issues ranging from troop deployments in Iraq to flu vaccines in Britain. From here on the tone will be more, shall we say, abrasive. Kerry's mantra: Bush has no grasp of reality beyond that enjoyed by his rich corporate friends. Bush's: Kerry is a creaky liberal, ambivalent about the use of military force and too eager to rely on government. "We're out of the 'buzz' phase and into the 'buzz saw'," said Tad Devine, one of Kerry's top strategists. "These last couple of weeks are going to be reminiscent of the opening scenes of 'Scarface'."

Chain-sawing an opponent is one way to excite your base; another is an appeal to cultural issues that partition the country. One such topic is federal funding for embryonic-stem-cell research. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, are for it--with Edwards last week proclaiming that people like the late Christopher Reeve might walk again except for Bush's opposition to expanded federal research. The president, for his part, noted that he'd funded research--but only in a way that was consistent with the "culture of life."

Gay rights is perhaps the hottest of buttons. Anti-gay-marriage initiatives are on the ballot in 11 states--including Ohio and Michigan. In the debate, the specific question was whether sexual orientation is instilled at birth, or chosen freely. Bush said he didn't know. Kerry said he did: it was a matter of genetics, adding that Vice President Dick Cheney's openly lesbian daughter, Mary, would agree. Gay-rights leaders praised Kerry. Republicans, led by an indignant Lynne Cheney, castigated him for what she labeled "a cheap and tawdry political trick" designed to attack Bush's evangelical Christian support. After a lot of churn and chatter on cable, Kerry aides privately conceded that it was poor taste to mention another politician's offspring--even if Cheney had done so first. "Klutzy," said a top Kerry adviser. But no one apologized.

The combat is so ferocious in part because the race is where it's always been: too close to call--though there is evidence that Bush now has a narrow lead: 48-46 percent among registered voters, 50-44 percent among likely voters in NEWSWEEK's new poll. …

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