Bush portrays the world as black and white. Kerry speaks in shades of grey.
The three debates produced many sharp and substantive clashes over policy, but just as importantly gave voters insights into what sort of a leader each man will be.
Partisans will find fatal flaws in each performance.
Bush’s critics insist he is too simplistic and stubborn to lead, while Kerry’s detractors label his nuanced answers as “flip-flops”.
Yet the face-to-face confrontations - scowls, barbs and factual misstatements included - provide Americans their most unvarnished glimpses at the man they will elect commander in chief.
Each candidate kept his aggression in check during the final debate. Kerry did not challenge Bush as forcefully as he had in the previous two, and Bush refrained from scowling as he did in the first debate.
Though the gulf separating the two is far wider on domestic policy than on foreign affairs, the clashes were more muted on taxes and health care than on Iraq.
The two men smiled warmly and embraced each other when the affair was over, as they prepared for a frantic 19-day quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Kerry may have helped himself on Wednesday night simply by standing toe-to- toe with the president for the third consecutive debate and putting people more at ease with the notion of a Massachusetts senator - a phrase Bush used derisively - becoming commander in chief.
Bush appeared most at ease on Wednesday when talking about his faith, and about what he had learned from his wife, who told him to “stand up straight and not scowl”, the president said, in a self-deprecating reference to his first debate appearance.
Kerry was most at ease when he talked about Pell Grants and Perkins Loans and “manufacturing job credits”.
Such distinctions lie at the heart of the very best and worst in each candidate.
It was Bush’s plainspokenness after the September 11, 2001, attacks that sent his approval ratings skyrocketing, and it remains the source of his strongest applause among supporters on the stump.
To others it is a rigid approach that does not allow for flexibility - or the admission of mistakes - even in the face of setbacks on the job front, or on the war in Iraq.
Kerry’s senatorial style provided him the gravitas to capture the Democratic nomination, and the presence to strongly challenge the president over the course of three live debates.
At the same time, it has left him open to charges of flip-flopping, and concerns that his deliberate, decision- making style may be a hindrance in the Oval Office.
The difference is evident in the two candidates’ campaigns.
Bush is surrounded by a small cadre of loyalists and remains closest to Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, who have been with him since his first run for governor in Texas a decade ago.
Kerry’s campaign includes 37 domestic policy councils and 27 foreign policy councils, each with scores of members, according to a Washington Post report.
And though some aides have been with him for more than a decade, the inner circle of the campaign has changed three times.
KERRY: When the president had an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, he took his focus off of them, outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, and Osama bin Laden escaped. Six months after he said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, ’Where is Osama bin Laden?’ He said: ’I don’t know. I don’t really think about him very much. I’m not that concerned.’ We need a president who stays deadly focused on the real war on terror.
BUSH: Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we’re worried about Osama bin Laden. We’re on the hunt after Osama bin Laden. We’re using every asset at our disposal to get Osama bin Laden.