"Working together for a free Cuba"




Campaign 2004 | The Presidential Debate

Showdown is Here.
By Lesley Clark

After months of circling each other, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry touched down in South Florida on Wednesday on the eve of their highly anticipated encounter -- a 90-minute debate that could be seen by as many as 50 million people and set the tone for the campaign's final stretch.

With national polls showing Bush with a slight lead, the stakes tonight are immense: The first debate is perhaps Kerry's best opportunity to convince voters that he could be president, that Bush blundered his way into Iraq and that the Democrat can better protect the United States against the threat of terrorism.

For the president, it's a prime opportunity to seal the deal with voters who remain troubled by the continuing chaos in Iraq, a chance to convince them that despite troop casualties and continued violence, the troubled country is on the road to democracy and that America is safer under his leadership.

The first of three debates, tonight's matchup at the University of Miami opens against the backdrop of hurricane-wracked Florida, where politics has been on hold since mid-August in the largest of the up-for-grabs states.

Bush's campaign scrapped two post-debate campaign events in Florida on Friday in deference to hurricane recovery efforts. Karl Rove, his chief strategist, told Florida reporters Wednesday that the campaign is making adjustments to deal with the unknown factors of the hurricanes -- which have left Floridians without electricity, homes, and perhaps, voter registration cards.

''We're flying sort of blind,'' Rove told reporters at a briefing at Bush's Miami hotel. ``Since Aug. 13 we've not been able to get consistent polling.

''Homes and condos are wrecked, we don't know how long it's going to take people to get home,'' he added.

For the president, however, the hurricanes have given him opportunity to appear as the comforter in chief, a role he relished Wednesday as he walked through a Lake Wales citrus grove hammered by three of the four hurricanes that tore across the state in six weeks.

Kerry's campaign, which was all but forced to stop campaigning in the state, says it is undaunted by the storms, planning a two-day, post-debate campaign swing in Florida.


Indeed, both campaigns landed Wednesday in South Florida ahead of the candidates, engaging in what one strategist dubbed ''the ritual predebate frenzy:'' touting the opponent as a champion debater capable of astounding feats of wordsmanship.

The strategy: to lower expectations for your own candidate so that he gets credit even for a ho-hum performance.

''The president has his work cut out for him,'' said Bush deputy campaign manager Mark Wallace, a Miami native. He along with Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie made the rounds in Miami, puffing up Kerry while suggesting the ''pretty-plain spoken'' Bush will score simply by showing up.

''John Kerry's been preparing for this moment his whole life,'' Wallace said. ``Look at his biography, I would challenge you to find anyone more invested in the skill and art of debating.''

Democrats, too, played the expectations game, even as they acknowledged that Bush has the edge in sticking to his message and delivering simple sound bites.

''But this isn't a popularity contest,'' said Kerry strategist Mike McCurry. ``We're not electing the head cheerleader of the United States.''

Under a minutely negotiated 32-page agreement by the campaigns, the 9 p.m. event -- to take place at UM's Convocation Center -- will focus on foreign policy and homeland security. PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer will moderate, and observers predict the fireworks will be minimal.

Neither candidate will be allowed to pose questions to the other, and they are even restricted in how far they can stray from their lecterns.

With South Florida hosting the debate, it's likely that the two opponents will parry over issues dear to the heart of locals: Cuba, Latin America, the Middle East, and perhaps, Haiti.


But strategists expect the main event to be the war in Iraq. The front-burner issue poses pitfalls for both candidates. Republicans believe the war enables Bush to look strong and determined in the face of a threat, but the rising death toll of American soldiers is a vulnerability.

Kerry's vote for the use of force in Iraq -- and his ensuing criticism of the administrations handling of the conflict -- has opened him up to accusations from the Republicans that he makes decisions based solely on how they'll play with voters.

Kerry has ratcheted up his criticism of Bush in recent weeks, painting the president as a rigid leader who is ignoring the growing chaos in Iraq that has diverted the nation's attention from a more important war on terrorism.

Bush, who has sought to tie the war in Iraq into a larger war on terrorism, will argue that his opponent is too much of a vacillator to be trusted with such an enormous task.

Political strategists suggest the stakes are higher for Kerry, who will be introducing himself to millions of voters, likely for the first time. Viewership of past debates suggest that the first debate is the most watched: Nearly 50 million tuned into the debate between former Vice President Al Gore and then Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.

And though national polls suggest that voters are uncomfortable with the situation in Iraq, they are also more likely to trust Bush to solve them.


''It's critical for Kerry,'' said University of Alabama political science professor David Lanoue of the first debate. ``He has to convince voters he's not the slippery flipper that Bush paints him as, that he has core beliefs he sticks to.

Said Lanoue, author of The Joint Press Conference: The History, Impact, and Prospects of American Presidential Debates:

``Voters are willing to turn out George W. Bush, but not to replace him with a weak, equivocal, flip-flopping candidate.''

Source: Miami Herald
Posted on Thu, Sep. 30, 2004