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Things getting nasty as election nears

| Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After two debates, voters have seen President Bush look peevish and heard him pass the buck. They've watched Sen. John Kerry deny he's a flip-flopper and then argue that Saddam Hussein was a threat -- and wasn't.

It's no wonder so few minds have changed.

Three weeks and one debate from Election Day, the vulnerable incumbent and his flawed challenger are struggling for the upper hand. Private and public polls show Bush and Kerry neck-and-neck for the popular vote, and the all-important race to 270 Electoral College votes is just as close.

Bush has all the advantages of incumbency, an electoral map that favors Republicans and a challenger whose voting record is arguably one of the most liberal in the Senate. Sounds good on paper.

But so does Kerry's case for a new course. More than 800,000 jobs have been lost during Bush's term, and his main justification for invading Iraq -- the assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction -- has been discredited after the loss of 1,000 Americans lives.

While most voters picked sides long ago, those in the wavering middle are trying to decide between a challenger who promises change and an incumbent who warns of its risks.

"At times you wonder whether either one of these guys is up to the task," Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said after the second of three presidential debates.

Bush turned in a disastrous performance in the first faceoff, grimacing and fidgeting while Kerry criticized his Iraq policies. To some voters, and even his own supporters, Bush looked like a man spoiled by success. He entered politics late in life, sped to the top and has rarely had to publicly defend his policies.

In the second debate, Bush struggled to name three wrong decisions. His initial response was to talk about unidentified personnel appointments.

Later, when forced to defend troop deployments in Iraq that critics say were too low, Bush pointed the finger at U.S. generals.

The CIA report that concluded there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was, in Bush's mind, justification for his action because it showed that Saddam Hussein "was trying to get rid of sanctions so he could reconstitute a weapons program."

With those words, Bush expanded a pre-emptive strike doctrine, suggesting that a military invasion is justified when a nation intends to do harm -- even lacking the means or evidence of an imminent attack.

Kerry didn't help his own cause. Early in the second debate, the Democrat summed up Bush's strategy nicely -- "He wants you to believe that I can't be president. And he's trying to make you believe it because he wants you to think I change my mind. Well, let me tell you straight up: I've never changed my mind about Iraq. I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat."

But later, he called Iran's nuclear ambitions "a threat that has grown while the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat."

In a New York Times Magazine article published Sunday, Kerry suggested the best the United States can do about terrorists is make them "a nuisance" like organized crime or prostitution. Bush jumped on the remark, ignoring that he told an interviewer in August that the United States could not win the war on terror.

While still calling Kerry a flip-flopper, Bush has opened a new line of attack by calling him a tax-and-spend liberal. The L-word, a Bush aide said, is just another way to call Kerry a wimp.

With little fanfare, Kerry has also shifted his emphasis. The slogan "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World," has been replaced by a more populist pitch, "Fighting for us."

This and Kerry's other new catchphrase, "I've got your back," are designed to connect with uncommitted voters who worry about the economy, health care and education -- along with Iraq.

On the day of the first debate, Kerry's private polling had the race tied overall. On Monday, a senior Kerry adviser said campaign polling showed the race was still tied. Public surveys vary from a slight Kerry lead to an edge for Bush.

Bush has lost ground to Kerry on many issues and personal qualities, polls show, but he is still seen as the strongest leader and the most trusted to protect the country and deal with Iraq.

Voters believe Kerry would do better at creating jobs.

Polls suggest voters are open to change, with a majority weary of Iraq and believing the nation is headed on the wrong track. Bush's job approval rating hovers around 50 percent, the mark of an incumbent who is vulnerable but still strong enough to win.

His challenge is to convince voters that change is too risky -- that Kerry is too indecisive, too liberal and too weak to lead the nation. Kerry needs the campaign to be a referendum on Bush's record.

That's why the next three weeks will be even more negative and personal, a prospect likely to bring out the worst in both men.

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