THE presidential debates closed out at Arizona State University on Wednesday night with more high notes than low. Both President Bush and his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, came across as confident and in good form and both Republicans and Democrats could plausibly claim a victory.
But the biggest winner here was the American public.
These debates, and the one encounter between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, have done more to frame the issues and illuminate the differences than all those ubiquitous TV commercials put together.
Senator Kerry came into the debates trailing in most polls and with a significant number of his Democratic supporters in dismay over what they perceived as a lackluster campaign. His strong showing, combined with Mr. Bush's inarticulateness, changed everything. While Mr. Bush found his voice more in the second debate, a town hall setting better suited to his gregarious style, he was playing catch-up thereafter.
In that sense, Mr. Kerry is the overall winner of this debate series simply because he got his campaign back on track. In Wednesday night's final meeting, Mr. Kerry did not lose this advantage; he was as assured and as eloquent as ever. Mr. Bush did well and scored some points but the most embarrassing blunder of the evening belonged to him.
When the subject of Osama bin Laden came up (although this debate was dedicated to domestic issues, there was no keeping Iraq and the war on terrorism out of it), Senator Kerry quoted Mr. Bush as saying that the President does not think much about Osama and is not all that concerned about him.
Mr. Bush not only denied saying such a thing but used it as an opportunity for sarcasm. "It's kind of one of these exaggerations," he said, with sneering emphasis.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, he did say it. In fact, he famously said it in March, 2002, and many Americans would instantly recognize that he did. If you are going to be snide in a presidential debate, you better be right.
This, however, was no knockout. If a debate were a prize fight, Senator Kerry would be the boxer who won on points. On Wednesday night, he was simply more methodical in laying out his positions, whereas Mr. Bush was too often unresponsive to the questions. A couple of times he changed the subject to education to avoid the question at hand.
But if Mr. Kerry is a better debater, that doesn't necessarily make him a potentially better president. With the debates ending and both men still standing, it is up to the challenger to take his fight to the American people, who will declare a winner in two and a half weeks.