A dead heat in race for the White House: now Kerry and Bush pick up the pace

John Kerry emerged the clear winner yesterday from his third and final debate with President George Bush, buoying the spirits of his campaign as he seeks to establish a clear lead in the 18 remaining days of an extraordinarily tight United States presidential election.

John Kerry emerged the clear winner yesterday from his third and final debate with President George Bush, buoying the spirits of his campaign as he seeks to establish a clear lead in the 18 remaining days of an extraordinarily tight United States presidential election.

As he did in their previous two encounters, Senator Kerry came across as far more assured on policy issues, especially on meat-and-potatoes topics such as health care, jobs and social security. A clutch of instant polls gave him the edge by margins ranging from 1 percentage point to 14 percentage points.

Since his knockout performance in the first debate in Miami two weeks ago, the Democratic challenger has raced from behind and turned the contest into a dead heat. His hope now is that undecided voters will continue to opt for him in sufficient numbers to put key swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida firmly into his column and with them an unassailable majority in the electoral college.

But it is not yet certain whether Senator Kerry can achieve this goal on the strength of the debates alone or if he still has some work to do to make American voters warm to him and his occasionally chilly, somewhat aloof patrician manner.

President Bush may have had trouble answering Mr Kerry's withering criticisms on domestic policy - the focus of the debate at Arizona State University - but he can take solace from his best performance of the three encounters. The scowling and terse, rote answers that sunk him in the first debate were replaced by smiles and the occasional dash of humour, making him much more likable.

The President fared poorly in the post-debate fact-check analysis conducted on the main television networks and on the internet, but during the debate he suffered no crushing blows and made no glaring gaffes. He may also have benefited from a certain sense of debate fatigue - a feeling that most of the rhetoric had been heard before and that the basic dynamics of the race remain unchanged.

In a campaign season peppered with baseball references - spin-doctors from both camps told reporters after the debate that their man was the better "closer" - Senator Kerry faces a challenge not unlike that of his beloved Boston Red Sox, whose latest World Series game with their eternal rivals, the New York Yankees, offered stiff competition for the nation's attention on Wednesday night.

Like the Red Sox, the Democratic candidate has certainly shown he can rally from behind but final victory could still prove elusive. Even if the debates broke his way, nobody is underestimating the Bush campaign's capacity to change the subject - by playing up fears of another terrorist attack, say - or to launch a last-minute volley of personal attacks similar to those that sank Governor Ann Richards of Texas in 1994 or Senator John McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000.

There is also the very live issue of vote manipulation, or out-and-out fraud. The lawsuits are already flying in Florida, scene of the infamous meltdown in 2000, and accusations of illegal suppression of votes or mishandling of registrations are flying in half a dozen states.

Senator Kerry's most important remaining task is to go beyond the doubts and disillusion with the incumbent's performance that he has helped propagate and get voters genuinely enthused about him. In state after state, the polls show that swing voters are not yet quite ready to throw their lot in with him, especially at a time of war overseas and continuing fear of new al-Qa'ida attacks at home.

Mr Kerry made extensive efforts to broaden his appeal, cracking a self-deprecating joke about the fact that he had "married up" into the billionaire Heinz fortune. He talked at length about his faith in God - something important to mainstream US voters - and how it motivated his passion for social justice. And he cast himself not as a Boston brahmin but rather as the champion of the common man. "I'm going to fight for the American worker just as hard I fight for my own job," he said.

He hammered away, as he has before, on the runaway budget deficit, the job losses of the past four years, the social inequities of the Bush tax cuts and the rising costs of an ever more inaccessible healthcare system. Being lectured by the President on fiscal responsibility, he said in one of his more memorable lines, was "like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country".

The President, meanwhile, seemed intent on painting Senator Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal with an undistinguished 20-year record in Congress and an equivocal stance on national security that would play straight into the hands of America's enemies. "There's a mainstream in American politics and you sit on the far left bank," he said.

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