President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, their animosity stirred by a contentious second debate, lit into each other over Iraq, jobs and debate performance on Saturday in critical battleground states.
Kerry "doesn't pass the credibility test," Bush asserted, while the Massachusetts senator claimed that the nation's choice "could really not have been more clear than it was last night."
Instant polls did not give either Bush or Kerry a clear edge in Friday's wide-ranging debate in St. Louis before an audience of uncommitted voters, depicting either a tie or a slight edge for Kerry.
But Republicans were heartened by what they saw as a steadier, more focused and aggressive performance by the president than in the first debate, where he displayed bouts of impatience and peevishness.
Bush and Kerry ventured into each other's "must win" states, Bush campaigning in Iowa and Minnesota and Kerry in Ohio and Florida.
Democrat Al Gore won both Minnesota and Iowa in 2000, but polls show the race to be extremely close this year. Bush won Ohio and Florida in 2000, and GOP strategists are hard pressed to see a Bush victory without carrying those two states, with their combined total of 47 electoral votes.
Both candidates critiqued the other's debate performance.
"The reason I though he was making all those scowling faces was because he saw the latest job numbers," Kerry told about 10,000 people at a rally in this northeastern Ohio community. At another point, Kerry joked that he was "a little worried ... I thought the president was going to attack Charlie Gibson." Gibson was moderator for the debate.
Kerry advisers said he plans intense attacks in the coming days over domestic issues, including job losses, rising health care costs, and stem-cell research, in the run-up to Wednesday's concluding debate in Tempe, Ariz.
In Davie, Fla., Kerry criticized Bush for saying in the debate that he won't allow prescription imports from Canada because the drugs might really be from the third world.
"I've heard some lame excuses, but I've never heard something like that from the president of the United States," Kerry said. He also said Bush is failing to get help from other countries in Iraq, adding,. "We need some adults running the foreign policy of the United States of America."
Bush, speaking to more than 7,000 supporters at a Waterloo, Iowa, baseball field, declared himself the winner of the debate and ridiculed Kerry.
"With a straight face, he said, 'I had only one position on Iraq.' I could barely contain myself. He must think we've been on another planet," Bush said.
With the debate occurring on a Friday night, both sides worked to maximize weekend exposure in hopes of winning the post-debate "spin" battle to portray their respective candidate as emerging as the victor.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards planned back-to-back appearances on all five television network Sunday interview shows, while surrogates for both sides made the rounds through the weekend.
Bush senior adviser Karl Rove, in a rare on-the-record talk with reporters traveling with Bush, defended Bush's more combative tactics in the second debate.
"It was just the right format ... and allowed him to clearly show the differences," Rove said. "He was eager. He saw the opportunity to set the record straight. He had lots of fun."
Rove continued to characterize the race as close, although he noted Bush was making headway in several states that had gone for Gore in 2000.
"This victory depends upon people seeing that this president is a strong leader," Rove said. He depicted Kerry as having "positioned himself on the far-left fringe of the Democratic Party."
Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart cast the final weeks of the campaign as a battle on Kerry's part for the middle class and on Bush's for "a much narrower group, those who are at the top end of the income scale."
"I think John Kerry scored very well any time the subject turned to jobs, the economy, health care and the environment," Lockhart told reporters in a conference call.
Meanwhile, Bush maintained his line of attack on Kerry in his weekly Saturday radio address, declaring that his rival's proposals would "weaken America and make the world more dangerous."
Edwards, campaigning Saturday in Detroit, accused the president of distorting the latest employment statistics to make it seem like millions of jobs had been created on his watch.
"They're going to try everything they know how to put lipstick on this pig, but at the end of the day, it's still a pig," Edwards said.
Although 1.8 million jobs have been added to business payrolls in the past year -- the figure Bush's claims are based on -- there are 821,000 fewer jobs now in the country than when Bush took office in January 2001.
"Come November, his time is going to be up and we're going to have a new president," Edwards said.
Earlier Saturday, Bush told a fund-raising breakfast for local candidates in St. Louis that "much of what my opponent said last night is contradicted by his own record."
And he mocked Kerry for his "right into the camera" pledge not to raise taxes on people making less than $200,000.
"The problem is, to keep that promise, he would have to break almost all of his other ones," Bush said to laughter.