Viewers contacted in one poll (CNN-"USA Today"-Gallup) conducted immediately after the debate in the southwestern city of Tempe, Arizona, thought Kerry won by a substantial 52 to 39 percent. But other polls rated the performances of the candidates nearly equal. Overall polls indicate the race for the presidency is very close.
The two men presented starkly different views on nearly every issue.
Kerry attacked Bush's economic record, accusing him of creating a massive budget deficit, losing jobs, and ignoring the needs of the middle class -- such as affordable health care.
"Children across our country don't have health care. We are the richest country on the face of the planet, the only industrialized nation not to do it," Kerry said. "I have a plan to cover all Americans. We will make it affordable and accessible and let everybody buy into the same health care plan [that] congressmen and senators give themselves."
Bush defended his economic performance, saying the country's budget problems began under his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. He also said the American economy is getting stronger, and portrayed the United States as a land of opportunity for many foreign workers.
"Many people are coming to this country for economic reasons. They're coming here to work. If you can make 50 cents in the heart of Mexico, for example, or make $5 here in America -- $5.15 [the federal minimum wage] -- you're going to come here if you're worth your salt, if you want to put food on the table for your families. And that's what's happening."
The debate was meant to focus exclusively on domestic issues. But Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism were also central to the discussion.
Kerry accused Bush of "rushing" the United States into war in Iraq and turning his attention away from the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan: "Six months after [Bush] said Osama bin Laden must be caught dead or alive, this president was asked, 'Where's 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."
But Bush argued that he has not ignored the war on terrorism, and that his campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been a crucial part of those efforts. The United States, he said, is on the path to a more secure future.
"Yes, we can be safe and secure if we stay on the offensive against the terrorists and if we spread freedom and liberty around the world," Bush said.
Americans' interest in the debates has been high. Almost 47 million viewers are estimated to have watched the second Bush-Kerry debate on 8 October. More than 62 million Americans tuned in to the first debate on 30 September.
By contrast, the second presidential debate in 2000 between Bush and former Vice President Al Gore drew just 38 million viewers.