Bush, Kerry camps build uprivals on eve of first debate

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To hear President Bush’s supporters, their candidate can only hope not to be blown off the stage in tonight’s first presidential debate by an opponent they’ve spent a year portraying as having the conviction of a wet noodle.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s backers, meanwhile, who in the past have derided the president as a mush-mouthed underachiever, now say Mr. Bush gave a “thrashing” to Al Gore in 2000 and assert their candidate will be lucky to be standing after tonight.

The two men square off at 9 p.m. at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., in what could be the defining moment of the 2004 presidential campaign, with an audience in the tens of millions and blanket coverage in Friday’s newspapers.

“This very first debate is the most important debate because it will either make the playing field go back to a level playing field for John Kerry, or it could be headed to a landslide” for Mr. Bush, said Democratic communications strategist Morris Reid.

Tonight’s debate focuses on foreign policy — something the Bush campaign fought hard for.

After running essentially even or slightly behind for most of the summer, Mr. Bush has opened up a lead of about four percentage points to six percentage points when the public polls are averaged together.

Republicans said that puts the pressure on Mr. Kerry, while all Mr. Bush has to do is continue to be bold and strong, and keep Mr. Kerry on the defensive.

“In politics, you’re either on offense or you’re on defense, and if you’re on defense, you’re probably losing,” said former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., the Oklahoma Republican who is now head of GOPAC.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said Mr. Bush’s steadiness will contrast well with Mr. Kerry.

“You’re going to see John Kerry being John Kerry — he’s going to talk a lot, he’s going to pontificate, he’s going to let people know whatever is today’s menu is where he’s going to take the country,” he said.

But House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Mr. Bush’s success comes because he isn’t “confused by the facts — he simply makes assertions and sticks to them whether they are factual or correct or not.”

And Mike McCurry, an adviser to Mr. Kerry, said the Democrat laid the groundwork for the debate over for the past 10 days, beginning with the senator’s speech at New York University on Sept. 20 when Mr. Kerry said knowing what he knows now, the United States should not have gone to war in Iraq.

“He literally shifted the frame of this debate,” Mr. McCurry said yesterday.

At this point, the debates themselves are almost lost in build-up and post-debate spin. And that has given rise to campaigns’ poor-mouthing of their own candidate and trying to build up their opponent.

“Mark us down for answers ‘A’ through 12 on what a great debater Bush is,” Mr. McCurry joked with reporters.

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