CLEVELAND – Fresh from their second debate, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry dashed back to the campaign trail on Saturday, sniping at one another and setting up a final showdown in their third debate on Wednesday.

Bush appeared energized as polls and interviews with swing voters suggested that he did better in the second debate than he had in his first confrontation with the Democratic challenger. Kerry emerged similarly upbeat, his aides confident that he was poised to win all three debates, and with them the presidency.

A new poll released on Saturday showed the two neck and neck, with a shrinking sliver of undecided Americans in a handful of battleground states holding the key.

Bush, using language similar to his pledge to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists, portrayed Kerry as an unrepentant liberal during his 20 years in the Senate.

“He can run,” Bush told a northwest Iowa crowd packed into a college baseball field, “but he cannot hide.”

Campaigning later in Iowa and Minnesota, Bush said Kerry couldn’t be believed on other issues, including health care and taxes, a likely preview of the president’s line of attack in Wednesday night’s debate in Arizona, which will focus on domestic issues.

“There’s a lot more in his record,” said Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist. “He may suffer from political amnesia, but the American people do not.”

Kerry flew to Ohio and Florida repeating his critique of the president on Iraq and on domestic policy issues and promising supporters in Cleveland that his job will be to “watch your back.”

Spelling out the Kerry camp’s strategy for the coming week, Kerry senior adviser Michael McCurry said Kerry would take advantage of Bush’s assertion that he could think of no mistakes.

In the battleground state of Ohio, Bush and Kerry both impressed and frustrated a group of 12 swing voters who watched Friday night’s debate with Knight Ridder.

Bush gained three possible votes with his debate performance. He started the evening with one of the 12 leaning his way – not an unusual showing in a heavily Democratic area – and ended with four saying they were leaning toward voting for him. All three Bush converts said they were swayed by his talk about the war and terrorism.

Jasmine King, 27, a student from East Cleveland, was undecided at the outset. By the end of the debate, she’d changed her opinion of Kerry from “weak” to “respectable.” Bush grew even more in her eyes thanks to an aggressive defense of his record and his criticisms of Kerry.

“It’s the war issue,” said King. “Bush could stand up to whatever could happen again.”

Kerry gained no votes during the 90 minutes.

He started with seven voters leaning his way and ended with seven leaning his way – though not the same seven. Yet if he did not win over any new converts, he did boost his support from several who watched.

Walter “Chick” Holtcamp, 50, a real estate manager from Cleveland, was leaning toward Kerry. He said he thought Bush wastes taxpayer money, particularly in Iraq, but wanted more assurance that Kerry had the character and style to follow through with his plans.

Holtcamp said Kerry came across as clear and decisive, the qualities the senator had failed to demonstrate through much of the campaign.

“It has to do with presentation,” said Holtcamp. “He spoke clearly. He was articulate. He addressed the issues straightforwardly. He wasn’t petulant.”

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His wife, Sharon Holtcamp, 50, also a real estate manager, started the evening leaning toward Kerry and ended it more solidly behind him. She already agreed with Kerry on issues such as abortion rights, the environment and the war. She, too, wanted to see more of Kerry on his feet.

“He addressed every single issue in a forthright manner,” said Sharon Holtcamp. “He’s not a black and white person. None of these issues is a black and white issue.”

Some members of the group remained unchanged.

Brett Haney, 29, a computer programmer from Lyndhurst, Ohio, said he knew he was against Bush, and was leaning toward Kerry. But he remained uncommitted.

“Even though he can be longwinded, Kerry was able to give me more specifics of what he would do,” said Haney. “I just wasn’t sure they could be accomplished.”

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Pollster John Zogby, who conducted the focus group for Knight Ridder, said both candidates helped themselves. “Right now the advantage goes to nobody. It’s close and we don’t know how this is going to tilt.”

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Zogby said Kerry still hasn’t solidified the kind of support one might expect in a Democratic area such as northeast Ohio. “There is still something missing from John Kerry,” he said.

Zogby released a new poll on Saturday showing the race is close nationally, with 46 percent of likely voters supporting Kerry and 45 percent supporting Bush. The poll for the Reuters news agency surveyed 1,216 likely voters Wednesday through Friday – before the debate – and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-09-04 1726EDT



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