- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

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.

Steven Keller, debate team director and assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said Mr. Bush scored an amazing success in 2000 through tremendously low expectations.

The Associated Press even convened a panel of debate coaches, who scored all three debates a victory for Mr. Gore on the issues — but the public didn’t see it that way.

“I think the Democrats felt they were badly out-spun in 2000, so both the pre-debate expectations worked in favor of Bush and the post-debate spin worked in favor of Bush in 2000,” Mr. Keller said.

“Both sides are playing that game so much harder this cycle, in the hopes of beating expectations,” he said, though he and other observers said the public is wise to the game this time around.

“Most people looking at these debates will be doing so with their eyes wide open, understanding that it’s a very competitive campaign and that there are two perhaps very different debating styles in competition,” Mr. Keller said.

Mr. Reid said the fact that voters know Mr. Bush this time around means “he can’t go up there and do the old ‘gosh, shucks.’ It’s not going to work this time. He’s truly going to have to go up there and show he’s a president who can lead this country, and at a time of peril.”

Tonight’s debate will be moderated by PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer. The second presidential debate, to be held in St. Louis on Oct. 8, will be moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC, and CBS’ Bob Schieffer will moderate the third debate, in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 13. The vice-presidential nominees will square off on Oct. 5 in Cleveland.

Some observers bristle at the notion of designating these forums as debates, saying that without a chance for the candidates to pose questions to each other and with such tightly controlled rules these amount to little more than a series of mini-speeches.

“Do we call these debates? I don’t know — they’re really just an opportunity to get up there and be programmed and make your point,” Mr. Watts said.

Mr Watts said he believes the second and third debates may actually be the more defining ones.

“You see this as three quarters, so we’re going to go out and run a couple of plays in the first quarter to see what kind of defense they’re running and all that,” he said.

The debates are controlled by a 32-page legal agreement between the two campaigns, specifying the topic and rules for each 90-minute debate.

The rules prohibit props and disallow the candidates from asking each other questions or proposing pledges to be agreed to, but the rules also lay out the temperature for the halls — “an appropriate temperature according to industry standards.”

Mr. McCurry called the rules a “legalized recitation” of the standards of the debate, but said the public will still get what it wants.

“I think there’s plenty of room in there to have the give-and-take I think the country wants to see,” Mr. McCurry said.

Mr. DeLay said his biggest worry is that Mr. Kerry might be able to put his own twist on Ronald Reagan’s classic line from a 1980 primary debate: “I do think Kerry has the edge a little bit, particularly if President Bush doesn’t show up one night and Kerry has the Reagan-esque moment and shouts at the moderator, ‘My wife paid for this microphone, Mr. Green.’”

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