TEMPE, Ariz. – On the defensive over job losses and health care woes, President Bush sought Wednesday night to make the campaign a referendum on his rival – casting Democratic Sen. John Kerry as out of the mainstream, a liberal whose rhetoric doesn’t match his record.

That’s what a vulnerable incumbent must do when his own policies are under assault and his re-election threatened. Bush was desperate to convince voters to vote against Kerry, even if they were reluctant to vote for him.

“If you don’t want to focus on your own record, you focus on the other guy’s,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican consultant in Washington. “He really doesn’t have much of a choice, does he?”

Still, Fabrizio and others gave Bush credit for firmly defending himself in the third and final presidential debate. A Democratic consultant, Dane Strother, called the faceoff a draw – with Bush forcing Kerry into awkward territory on social issues.

Allan Ramsey, 67, an uncommitted voter from Hedgesville, W. Va., said he was more likely after the debate to vote for Kerry, though he was unimpressed with the show.

“I’m just glad this was the last one,” Ramsey said. “I’m tired of the same old squabbling.”

Indeed, there was plenty of that.

The debate opened with both men assuring voters that the post-Sept. 11 world could be safe again – if he wins Nov. 2, that is.

Kerry turned a question about flu vaccinations into a long indictment on Bush’s health care policies. “This president has turned his back on the wellness of America,” he said.

Bush countered: “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints” and he called Kerry’s health care plan “an empty promise.”

The president repeatedly tried to convinced voters that Kerry exaggerates, dissembles and can’t be trusted to keep his promises or protect the peoples’ money.

Bush accused Kerry of raising dozens of taxes and said the Democrat’s domestic policies would require many more hikes. “Guess who ends up paying the tax gap? The middle class.”

Asked about jobs, Bush steered the answer to education and said, “I’ve got four more years to go, more to do to continue to raise standards.” Kerry pointed out the shift of subject, and hammered Bush for the loss of more than 800,000 jobs during his presidency and the rising deficit.

“Being lectured by President Bush about fiscal responsibility is like Tony Soprano talking about law and order,” Kerry said.

Bush, whose scowls and fidgeting marred his first debate, answered Kerry’s dig with a cold stare – then a small smile as he reached for his glass and took a sip of water.

Bush punched back.

“My opponent talks about fiscal sanity. His record in the United States Senate does not match his rhetoric,” the president said.

“There’s a mainstream in American politics,’ he told Kerry “and you’re sitting on the far left bank.”

A tight smile cracked Kerry’s craggy face as he scribbled notes, trying not to repeat Bush’s mistake from the first debate.

As if to answer Bush’s out-of-the mainstream argument, Kerry couched his answers to the next two questions – on abortion and gay rights – in gauzy, conservative language.

“We’re all God’s children,” he said to begin a lengthy answer on gay rights. Kerry is for gay right, but against gay marriage – a nuanced positions that exposes him to charges of political opportunism.

Mindful that one-fourth of voters are Catholic, Kerry embraced his religion but noted that he opposes the Vatican on abortion. “I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith …,” he said. Does that mean he’s personally opposed to abortion? Kerry didn’t make it clear.

“I think I’m leaning toward Kerry now because he says he’s a Catholic and doesn’t believe in all of the church’s beliefs, like me,” said Marcia Vinick, an uncommitted voter from Scotia, N.Y., and a Catholic.

She favored Bush before the series of three debates began.

So did John Barker, 73, of Tampa, Fla., who voted for Bush in 2000 and finally decided Wednesday night to back Kerry.

“I’ve become more and more disturbed about Bush,” he said. “I’m going to vote for Kerry. This debate cemented that. I just don’t think with everything we’re facing, we can have another four years. I’m talking about the economy. I’m talking about Iraq. Bush just didn’t give me a good reason for the way things are.”

“He gave me plenty of reasons to vote against Kerry,” Barker said. “But why should I vote for him again?”

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