Sunday, September 26, 2004

President Bush and his challenger, Sen. John Kerry, are preparing in secret for their first debate on Thursday, while their surrogates spent yesterday trying to spin low expectations for each man in the critical showdown.

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters, “This will be the most-watched political event of the election year,” and predicted a bigger audience than the 44 million who watched Mr. Bush debate Al Gore for the first time in 2000.

And he pointed to that debate as an example of the president’s rhetorical skill, ignoring the image projected by Democrats before that encounter and since of Mr. Bush as a bumbler and an intellectual lightweight.

“We all remember that debate,” Mr. McAuliffe said. “George Bush defied expectations and won. Let’s face it, George Bush is a great debater. He has never lost a debate.”

Republicans, meanwhile, point to Mr. Kerry’s two decades in the U.S. Senate, called the world’s most prestigious deliberative body, as proof that the Democrat should be expected to talk circles around the president.

Bush senior political strategist Matthew Dowd has called Mr. Kerry “better than Cicero” in debates, a description that the senator’s last one-on-one debate opponent did not dispute yesterday.

“He’s one of the most articulate people in public life, if not the most. The guy is a real wordsmith,” said William Weld, who failed in his bid to end Mr. Kerry’s Senate career in 1996.

“In debate, I think a particular strength of his is the ability to pivot and change the question to the topic that he really would prefer to discuss,” Mr. Weld said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “So he’s got, in a way, the force of jujitsu. He can use his opponent’s force against him.”

Joe Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication studies at San Francisco State University, said, “Lowballing expectations is an old trick.

“If you don’t get killed as bad as you thought you’d be killed, you have a moral victory to crow about,” Mr. Tuman said yesterday. “It’s like the first ‘Rocky’ movie. Rocky lost, but he still won because it was never supposed to be close.”

Mr. Kerry arrived yesterday in Spring Green, Wis., taking a break from continuous campaign travel to prepare for the debates in the swing state. He plans to take time out today only for a town hall-style meeting with local voters.

At podiums set up in a conference area of his Crawford, Texas, ranch, Mr. Bush practiced a couple of hours on Saturday and then another two hours yesterday morning. Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, played Mr. Kerry, with Mark McKinnon, media adviser for the Bush-Cheney campaign, as the moderator.

Thursday’s debate, which will focus on foreign policy at the insistence of the Bush campaign, affords Mr. Kerry a chance to counter the advantage of the incumbent, who carries the weight and respect of the office with him on the campaign trail.

“As a challenger, the moment you stand on that podium, there’s no music, no ‘Hail to the Chief,’ no presidential seal,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat and former senior political adviser to President Clinton, on ABC’s “This Week” yesterday. “It’s an amazing leveler, day one, right there. And so right there he’s got an advantage.”

The first of three confrontations also might be the last significant chance for Mr. Kerry to dent the growing lead that Mr. Bush has built in the polls six weeks before Election Day.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released yesterday gives Mr. Bush a 52 percent-to-45 percent lead among likely voters nationwide, a two-point increase over the lead that the president held two weeks ago.

Recent polls in battleground states across the country show that Mr. Bush is gaining in areas of the country essential to retaining the White House.

Mr. Kerry has a leg up going into the debate because despite a Democratic convention dedicated almost exclusively to the candidate’s biography, this will be the first time many voters get a close look at his views, Mr. Emanuel said.

“John Kerry’s advantage here is that I think many people are going to cue in, because they’ve made a decision on the president,” Mr. Emanuel said. “They’re looking at John Kerry, and they’re going to take his measure.”

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