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Dead Even, Braced For Final Debate

As they prepared for the third and final presidential debate, three new polls showed that the race between President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry appears to be dead even.

A new poll by CBS News released Tuesday gave Mr. Bush a 48-45 percent edge over Kerry among likely voters – a lead that's within the poll's margin of error. The survey found that Kerry has the advantage over Mr. Bush on the economy, while the president retains his lead as the candidate best able to fight the war on terror.

Separately, a new Zogby poll showed Mr. Bush and Kerry tied at 45 percent each, while a USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey gives Kerry a 49-48 percent edge.

The tightness of the contest raises the stakes in Wednesday's debate on domestic issues at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Warming up for Wednesday night's debate, President Bush was campaigning in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he charged that Kerry would have to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for the domestic programs he is proposing.

"As much as he's tried to obscure it," the president said that Kerry is a confirmed liberal. He said the first two debates "showed differences between the senator and me on issues ranging from jobs to taxes to health care to the war on terror."

Mr. Bush said he has the answers to fix the health care system and that he won't wreck the federal budget in doing so.

He stressed the need for growth of community health centers to serve the poor and said the newly enacted legislation to revamp Medicare is helping senior citizens. He said Kerry's proposed changes would put millions of people looking for health care into "a government program."

"With a straight face he tried to tell Americans that ... the government has nothing to do with it," Mr. Bush said.

From Colorado Springs, the president was heading to Arizona and a Republican Party fund-raiser in Paradise Valley.

Kerry was off the campaign trial Tuesday in Santa Fe, N.M., concentrating on debate preparation, but his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, fired back at Mr. Bush.

Edwards said Tuesday that Mr. Bush is disconnected from the reality that many Americans struggle to pay for health care and find work.

Campaigning in a Denver suburb some 70 miles from where Mr. Bush held a rally, Edwards criticized the Republican incumbent's record on jobs. More than 800,000 jobs have been lost since Mr. Bush took office, making him the first president to have more jobs lost than created in 72 years.

The North Carolina senator said Mr. Bush was "out of touch with what's happening in the real world."

"I'll tell you what would be good for the economy, would be to outsource George Bush," Edwards said.

Mr. Bush's campaigning Tuesday in the conservative heart of Colorado was an effort to counter Kerry's efforts to win a state that has voted Republican in nine of the past 11 presidential elections. One poll shows Bush ahead in Colorado; another shows the two men in a close race.

"Kerry is here to try to make up electoral votes he can't get in the South," said Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy. "John Kerry and the Democrats are setting a tall order for themselves by making a play for Colorado."

In a last-minute flurry of accusations before their final debate, Kerry tried to tie the president to record oil prices while the president charged that his Democratic opponent had misunderstood the war on terror.

On Monday, Kerry talked back to the president who has taken to calling him a tax-and-spend liberal with a 20-year Senate record of voting in favor of tax increases.

The record price of oil "means a lot more profit for this president's friends in the oil industry. But for most middle class Americans, the Bush tax increase is a tax increase that they can't afford," Kerry said in New Mexico.

Mr. Bush, also campaigning in New Mexico, ridiculed Kerry for saying in an interview published Sunday in The New York Times Magazine, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they're a nuisance."

"I couldn't disagree more,'' the president said. "Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive."

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