With the debates behind them, President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry set out Thursday on an 18-day campaign sprint to Election Day, concentrating their time and advertising on a dozen or so battleground states that will settle the election.
Polls showed the race a virtual dead heat.
The three Bush-Kerry debates were widely seen as a net plus for the Democrat, with even the head of Mr. Bush's campaign conceding that Kerry picked up momentum, but insisting it would prove fleeting.
"I think it was temporary," Marc Racicot, the Bush campaign chairman, told reporters the morning after an intense final debate that sharpened differences over the war in Iraq, the economy, health care and abortion.
The Democratic Party was quick to publicize what it called a debate "threepeat" for Kerry, launching two videos that mocked Mr. Bush's performance. One shows the president talking about Osama bin Laden and telling White House reporters, "I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run," then denying during the debate that he had ever said it.
The other video shows Mr. Bush laughing when asked about uninsured Americans.
Mr. Bush played down negative reviews of his debate performances. "The pundits and the spinners, they all have their opinions but there's only one opinion that matters and that's the opinion of the American people on Nov. 2," he told reporters during a rare visit to the press cabin on Air Force One. "I feel great about where we are."
"My spirits are high," Mr. Bush declared. "I'm enthusiastic about my chances."
Aof uncommitted voters who watched Wednesday's debate named Kerry the winner by 39-25 percent over Mr. Bush, with 36 percent calling it a tie.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup post-debate poll also gave Kerry the edge by a margin of 52-39 percent. A third poll conducted by ABC News, showed the debate to be a draw, with 42 percent choosing Kerry and 41 percent picking the president.
Kerry was appearing Thursday before the AARP's national convention in Las Vegas. The organization of Americans over the age of 50 lent crucial support to controversial Medicare prescription drug legislation that Mr. Bush won from Congress a year ago. Kerry opposed the measure and polls now show support for it lags among older Americans.
Mr. Bush decided to skip the convention and first lady Laura Bush was taking his place. The president headed instead to a rally with Republican governors, also meeting in Las Vegas.
For undecided voters, Wednesday night's debate in Tempe, Ariz., moderated by, was a chance to comparison-shop.
Kerry cast himself as champion of the little guy and Mr. Bush the guardian of the wealthy, branding the president as reckless with the federal budget and the use of American force. Mr. Bush labeled Kerry a do-nothing liberal senator with questionable credibility and an insatiable appetite for taxes. A question about federal spending and deficits yielded one of their sharpest exchanges.
"You know, there's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank," Mr. Bush said, charging that Kerry had voted to exceed budget ceilings 277 times.
"Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," Kerry said. "This president has taken a $5.6 trillion surplus and turned it into deficits as far as the eye can see."
Both candidates said they believe marriage should remain a union of a man and a woman but that gay Americans should be treated with respect. Kerry cited Mary Cheney, the vice president's openly gay daughter and an official in the campaign, as a lesbian who probably would say being gay is not a matter of choice.
That drew a rebuke at a post-debate rally from Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife. She called Kerry "not a good man" and his reference to her daughter "a cheap and tawdry political trick."
In an interview Thursday with ABC Radio, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, said Mrs. Cheney "overreacted to this and treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion. I think that's a very sad state of affairs."
The debate focused on a range of domestic issues and exposed deep differences:
The president seemed to find his stride after two debates that most viewers and analysts thought he lost. He stifled most of the facial expressions that marred his first performance, ending each answer with a smile, though the camera occasionally captured him dropping it abruptly a few seconds later. After letting his voice rise to a shout during the second debate, Mr. Bush toned it down, speaking more softly.
Racicot quarreled with polls showing Kerry won the final debate and described the president's performance as "extraordinarily good."
Assessing all the debates combined, he said Kerry "did provide himself some temporary assistance with the first debate that got more leavened in the second debate and then began to dissipate at a whatever unknown rate with last night's performance.
"I just think he was on his heels most of the night," he added.
But Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe said the videos told the story.
"They capture the essence of George Bush's four years in office. Four years of wrong choices which he won't even own up to," he told reporters in a conference call.