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A war abroad may have conquered the campaign agendas for both presidential candidates this election season. But on Wednesday evening, the talk turned to things that conquer the minds of average Americans: jobs, taxes, health care and salaries.
In their final presidential debate, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry traded barbs on domestic issues, the focus for this third round. Newspapers weren't shy about emphasizing how important this last formal chance to argue for the country's top job for the next four years was for both men -- for Bush to persuade voters the country is headed in the right direction and for Kerry to better define himself as America's chief executive.
More than talking about themselves, and their own plans, reporters noted, they often blasted one another on their economic stands.
Kerry "repeatedly portrayed himself as a fiscally responsible leader running against a spendthrift president who had cut taxes for the wealthy while tolerating a profound decline for the American middle class," wrote Adam Nagourney and Robin Toner in their overview story for The New York Times.
In contrast, they continued, Bush, "staring stonily at Mr. Kerry, repeatedly sought to portray his opponent as a liberal out of the political mainstream" whose "health care plan was an 'empty promise.'"
And yet, others wrote, this third debate offered the chance to talk more substantively about economic plans and costs than its predecessors, which didn't veer much from their rhetoric-heavy foreign policy paths. "This face-off, far more than the first two, saw sharp ideological divisions between the two brought to the surface," wrote Jacob M. Schlesinger, Greg Hitt and John Harwood in their Wall Street Journal story.
Stories talked about Bush's focus on his tax-cut plans and job retraining programs to spur future economic growth and on private savings accounts for younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes to grow that pot. They discussed Kerry's plan to adopt a "pay-as-you-go" philosophy, roll-back on tax cuts for households earning more than $200,000 a year and offer similar health insurance policies to families that Congress members receive.
Still, most mainbar stories narrated the debate in the unavoidable he-said-he-said dialogue: Bush's charge that Kerry can't pay for his health care plan and Kerry's return fire of Bush being the first president in 72 years to have seen a net loss in jobs in four years -- which Newsday chief economic correspondent James Toedtman called "a thorn in [Bush's] side" in his roundup of the economic campaign issue.
"Of all the economic factors, it is 'jobs, jobs, jobs' that most gets voters' attention," Toedtman wrote.
This last debate will hardly be the last word, however. Moving forward, reporters said, the candidates will no doubt redouble their efforts to capture those voters' attention between now and Nov. 2.
"There are almost three weeks of a final free-for-all," wrote The New York Times' Todd S. Purdum, " one likely to be dominated not by set-piece face-offs or scripted conventions that the candidates themselves can control, but by forces and factors comparatively beyond the power of either."
Here are just a few of the stories covering the economic issues discussed in Wednesday's final presidential debate:
The Washington Post
The New York Times
The Wall Street Journal
Copyright © 2008 Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism