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