- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

After having been widely seen as the loser of the first presidential debate last week, President Bush enters a friendlier town-hall format for tonight’s second debate, where Democrats say he badly needs a win to boost his campaign.

“Given the president’s performance in the first debate, I would submit he not only has to have a good debate, but an extraordinary debate,” said Kerry campaign adviser Michael Donilon.

The Bush campaign, which is hoping for a better performance out of the president this time, has tempered its expectations — at least publicly.

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s brief career as a prosecutor in the 1970s equips him well for tonight’s event.

“As you saw in the first debate, Senator Kerry is very skilled in debate,” Mr. Mehlman said. “We expect him to be articulate and very effective.”

Mr. Kerry has prepared for tonight by taking several days off and rehearsing in a hotel ballroom in Englewood, Colo. Mr. Bush has kept up a busier public schedule, holding campaign events yesterday and Wednesday.

After the first debate, some of the president’s advisers blamed his poor showing on the fact that he had kept a busy schedule in Florida leading up the event, including touring hurricane damage.

Mr. Mehlman suggested that the rigors of being president are much greater than those facing a challenger, but predicted that it wouldn’t be a noticeable problem.

“The job of being president requires a lot of vigorous activity,” Mr. Mehlman said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “I’m confident he can fulfill the duties of president and perform well at the debate.”

Unlike last week’s debate, a one-on-one affair with a moderator posing questions, tonight’s town-hall format has questions submitted by an audience of voters who lean either toward Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry, but who all say they could be persuaded to switch.

Mr. Bush has conducted scores of town-hall meetings in the past few months and often seems to be more comfortable charming people in the crowd one at a time than talking to them all at once in a standard stump speech.

Mr. Bush has performed so well at the events that his campaign changed the usual format for nominating conventions, placing the stage in the middle of the hall and having the president speak “in the round” for his acceptance speech.

On Wednesday, Kerry adviser Mike McCurry said there is probably more pressure on Mr. Kerry this time, thanks to the high bar set by his performance in the first debate.

“We have probably more to lose going into the next two debates because of the really strong job in the first debate,” he said.

But Joe Lockhart, another adviser, told reporters yesterday that Mr. Bush still must prove himself.

“We are not silly enough to argue we think the campaign will begin and end Friday night for George W. Bush, but clearly he’s got a lot of things he has to get done.”

Polls show that Mr. Kerry handily won the first debate and that he has cut into Mr. Bush’s slight polling lead. A new Associated Press survey yesterday even gave the Democrat a four-percentage-point advantage among likely voters, although the race was tied among all registered voters.

After the first debate, more voters viewed Mr. Kerry positively than negatively — 44 percent to 40 percent, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey. That’s an improvement from September, when more viewed him negatively than positively.

But Mr. Bush also improved slightly, according to the same poll, which showed that 51 percent of voters view him favorably, a point more than before the debate.

Annenberg also found Mr. Bush’s lead over Mr. Kerry on two key measurements — whom voters trust to be commander in chief and to combat terrorism — hadn’t changed after the first debate.

Mr. Kerry did gain slightly on whether voters think he has a plan for “bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion” — 35 percent now say he does, up from 27 percent in September. Forty percent, meanwhile, say Mr. Bush has a plan.

Democrats have dubbed Mr. Bush’s incredulous facial expressions during the first debate “the smirk” and have charged that he seemed out of touch with voters’ lives.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the president of the United States, in order to perform well in a debate, needs to do more than not screw up his face and needs to do more than be able to string a sentence together,” Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards said yesterday in New Jersey. “He needs to come clean with the American people.”

Republicans say Mr. Kerry flubbed during the first debate when, after saying he wouldn’t cede a veto over national security to other nations, he added that U.S. pre-emptive action must be subject to a “global test.”

Mr. Mehlman said the debate is “an opportunity for [Senator Kerry] to explain what he meant by the ‘global test’ and how America would pass it under his leadership and why an American commander in chief should have to pass a ‘global test’ before defending our country.”

But Mr. Kerry’s advisers said they don’t think Mr. Kerry has to explain his answer any further.

“It’s not clear to me John Kerry needs to be more clear, because he was quite clear in the first debate,” Mr. Lockhart said.

Mr. McCurry said earlier this week that the Kerry team thinks their candidate just has to continue making the point that he “would lead America with strength and with conviction.”

Stephen Dinan, traveling with the Kerry campaign, reported from Englewood, Colo., and James G. Lakely reported from Washington. Charles Hurt, traveling with John Edwards in Bayonne, N.J., also contributed to this report.

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