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Inside Politics

Previewing the first debate

The challenge for both candidates Thursday is to avoid gaffes and lay out clear strategies for Iraq.
Paul Begala and Robert Novak of CNN's "Crossfire"  blog their reactions to the debate in real time  on starting at 9 p.m. ET.
September 30
First presidential debate: University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

October 5
Vice presidential debate: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

October 8
Second presidential debate: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

October 13
Third presidential debate: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

All debates start at 9 p.m. ET
Will the presidential debates impact the outcome of the election?
Carlos Watson
The Inside Edge
America Votes 2004

Tonight's presidential debate is the culmination, and possibly the climax, of what has been perhaps the most intense presidential election campaign in the past 30 years.

Fittingly, the first of the three televised presidential debates will take place in the state that controversially decided the last election, and may decide this one as well -- Florida.

Polls predict that as many as 6 in 10 adults may watch the Miami debate, which could lead to a record viewership of more than 80 million people, therefore offering a big opportunity to both sides.

Ready to rumble

Both candidates seem energized heading into the debates. President Bush has reason to be confident since he is currently leading in most of the national polls (52-44 percent in the most recent CNN/Gallup Poll). At least for the moment, he seems to have driven John Kerry out of as many as six key battleground states.

His opponent, however, has gained momentum recently, and John Kerry's campaign has picked up palpable energy since it lost its steam in August. In the past several weeks, Sen. Kerry has sliced the president's lead in half in a number of polls, from double digits to single digits.

Kerry's golden opportunity

For the challenger John Kerry, the debates, especially tonight's, present the opportunity to significantly change the dynamic of the race. If the senator from Massachusetts hopes to take the lead and cinch a victory in November, the debates may be the best chance for him in these final five weeks to show the American public what he is made of and what he stands for.

Historically, presidential debates have had a significant effect on the outcome of the election in close races. In 1992, challenger Bill Clinton was leading in the polls with incumbent George H. W. Bush going into the debates. From the first debate on, he clearly outshined the president and cemented his lead in the polls -- ultimately closing the deal with voters.

In contrast, Republican challenger Bob Dole came across as lackluster in the first debate against President Clinton in 1996 (which caused fewer people to watch the second and third debates), and he missed a vital opportunity to connect with voters and gain ground in the polls.

To turn the debates into a pivotal moment and produce a come-from-behind win in November, John Kerry needs to avoid any major gaffes and do three other things in Miami:

  • First, stylistically, Kerry needs to present himself as a clear, confident and direct leader who can be strong in difficult times. In effect, he needs to show the American people why they should have confidence in him as a leader, and counter the "flip flopper" label that the president's team has tried to place on him.
  • He needs to stay on point, use clear and concise language, and keep reiterating his main themes and ideas. To convey these leadership skills, facial images, body language and overall appearance and presentation will be just as important as the words he is saying.

  • Second, Kerry needs to challenge not just the president's Iraq policy, but his fundamental foreign policy, decision-making and management skills. Kerry needs to convincingly challenge the president's integrity as well as argue that Bush makes too many mistakes to be trusted in a dangerous and unpredictable world.
  • He can do that best perhaps not just with direct assertions, but also with questions la Ronald Reagan in 1980, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago," and colorful one-liners, such as "There you go again."

  • Third, and perhaps most important, Kerry has to use the debates to give voters a clear sense of what life would be like in a Kerry administration and needs to connect with them in a personal way. More than 50 percent of voters say they don't have a clear sense of what Kerry's plans are on major issues like Iraq, and many say they don't feel like they know him.
  • So even though this is a debate (at least in name), Kerry cannot simply joust with President Bush, he needs to use this forum to connect with voters on his vision, his platform, and his goals as president.

    Voters need to gain a better sense of who John Kerry is as a person and as a potential leader. He can give them this sense, not just through discussions on policy, but by using personable and personalized anecdotes as well. And, of course, the voters ultimately have to like what they see.

    Bush's breakthrough opportunity

    Similar to President Clinton in 1996 and President Reagan in 1984, President Bush enters the debates with a lead in the race, although not as commanding as their leads were.

    Like Clinton in 1996, President Bush would like to outperform his challenger in the first debate to such an extent that the second and third debates won't really matter.

    In Miami tonight, the president will once again have the chance to focus on the issues where he has consistently polled best -- national security and foreign policy. We saw this at the Republican convention and have seen it in almost every major speech he has given since 9/11.

    For people who may think that President Bush is less than rhetorically skilled: beware. As Ann Richards, John McCain and Al Gore can all attest, the president knows how to win a debate. To make this his unequivocal "breakthrough" moment, however, the president will need to avoid a major gaffe and do three things:

  • First, he will need to attack John Kerry in a way that makes voters see the senator as a dangerous flip flopper whose indecisiveness could put the country at risk in a post-9/11 world. While often chided as not being detail-oriented, the president is certain to be very specific in citing Kerry's words and voting record to make this point. Although Kerry will respond to these attacks, the charges and name-calling may nevertheless stick in voters' minds, perhaps even more firmly than they do now.
  • Second, from Iran to North Korea, the president needs to make the argument that difficult decisions will have to be made and the country needs an experienced, reliable -- and frankly, at times -- ruthless leader to keep the nation safe from terrorists. Bush will likely trumpet his preemption policy as perhaps imperfect, but necessary in a dangerous world, and suggest that John Kerry would be unwilling to act preemptively if necessary.
  • Third and finally, as he did at the Republican convention, the president needs to eat a bit of humble pie, particularly on Iraq and show that he realizes that all is not well over there. At the same time, Bush must convince voters that while Iraq is chaotic today, he will continue to do everything he can to stabilize the situation.
  • The big picture

    With two skilled debaters, a highly experienced moderator (PBS' Jim Lehrer has moderated more presidential debates than anyone else), record voter interest and a balmy Miami night, tonight should be a big event in the presidential election, perhaps moving the polls by four to five points.

    But it's worth remembering that while a debate can turn an election, the final weeks of the campaign (the so-called "post-debate phase" or final stretch) have shown to be just as important.

    For example, while he was widely seen to have "lost" the debates in 2000 and was down by 11 points after the third debate, Al Gore nevertheless went on to receive 500,000 more popular votes in the election than George Bush just a few weeks later.

    So tune in tonight. But remember, absent a major gaffe or a decisive performance, the story doesn't end here, and there will be much more election news to come in the weeks ahead.

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