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Rivals Find Common Ground on Fatherhood

Times Staff Writer

For a moment, they were just two dads, commiserating about the challenges of raising daughters.

Toward the end of the first presidential debate Thursday, moderator Jim Lehrer gave George W. Bush an opening to go after John F. Kerry’s character. Instead, his question sparked a rare personal moment between the rivals on a night dominated by aloof exchanges.

Bush thanked his challenger for the kindness Kerry’s daughters Alexandra, 31, and Vanessa, 27, had shown his 22-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara.

“I admire the fact that he is a great dad,” the president said. “Appreciate the fact that his daughters have been so kind to my daughters and -- in a -- what has been a pretty hard experience for, I guess, young girls seeing their dads out there campaigning.”

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Kerry, departing momentarily from his serious demeanor, looked touched.

“I appreciate enormously the personal comments the president just made, and I share them with him,” he said. “I think only if you’ve -- if you’re doing this -- and he’s done it more than I have in terms of the presidency -- can you begin to get a sense of what it means to your families. And it’s tough.

“His daughters -- I’ve watched them,” Kerry added. “I’ve chuckled a few times at some of their comments.”

Bush’s daughters raised eyebrows this summer with an irreverent joint speech at the Republican National Convention. In July, Jenna drew headlines when she stuck her tongue out at the national press corps.

“I’m trying to put a leash on them,” Bush joked Thursday.

“Well, I don’t know,” Kerry replied. “I’ve learned not to do that, Mr. President.”

“That’s right,” Bush said, as both men laughed.

After the debate, Bush’s daughters joined their parents on stage, where Kerry shook Barbara’s hand and patted Jenna on the back.

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Alexandra Kerry attended the debate but did not join her father on stage afterward. Vanessa Kerry was hosting a debate-watching party in Philadelphia, aides said.


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