Thursday, September 30, 2004

Tonight's big debate: Bush v. Kerry

John Kerry wants a decisive rally

Enquirer wire services

After months of wrangling and millions of dollars in advertising, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will go head-to-head tonight, facing hard questions about where they would lead the nation for the next four years.

This debate, the first of three, fittingly will focus on homeland security and foreign policy as the first presidential debate since the Sept. 11 attacks.

TV: All major networks and cable-news outlets.
LOCATION: University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla.
LENGTH: 90 minutes
TOPICS: Foreign policy and homeland security.
MODERATOR: Jim Lehrer, anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.
FORMAT: Candidates will stand at podiums, with no audience participation. The moderator will ask at least 16 questions. A candidate will get two minutes to respond; the other candidate will get 90 seconds to comment on the question or to respond to his rival's answer.
ESTIMATED AUDIENCE: 50 million viewers are expected.
SURPRISING LINK: Bush and Kerry, two years apart at Yale University, shared the same oratory teacher and debate coach, Rollin G. Osterweis. Their training in speaking and thinking under Osterweis influenced the kind of candidates they became and will be part of their performances tonight.
Log into after the debate and tell us what you think of the candidates.
The election promises to be so close and the stakes are so high that a telling performance or a damaging gaffe could tip the outcome.

"It's a very big deal. This is the premier moment of the campaign, this first debate," said Alexander P. Lamis, professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University.

What Bush needs to do

Despite his lead in many opinion polls, it would be risky for Bush to "sit on his hands," says University of Missouri communications professor William Benoit, who has written five books about presidential campaigns. Bush needs to show voters who have doubts about the direction of the country that things are getting better.

"Bush has got to be more detailed" about Iraq, adds professor Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis. "Where are we going to get the troops to go there and what's the cost?"

Bush is likely to try to reinforce his argument that Kerry is a vacillator whose positions change with the political winds, a politician unfit to lead the nation.

"Bush has a warmth that plays out over an audience, and there is no warmth in what the intellectual from New England gives," says Henry Graff, Columbia University professor emeritus and presidential historian.

Kerry may try to knock Bush off stride, but the president is famous for staying on message. The rules of the debate prohibit the candidates from questioning one another, but Kerry could toss out rhetorical questions and hope a moderator steers them to Bush.

Even so, Schroeder says, "Bush may not take the bait."

What Kerry needs to do

The senator criticizes President Bush's Iraq policies in every speech, and he will try to drive home his argument that the war is going badly and Bush doesn't understand or know what to do.

He must persuade the millions of voters watching on TV that he has a better plan to bring the war to an end and bring America's troops home. He must seem strong and resolute - after months of Bush ads insisting he's not.

Kerry needs to make people envision him as president, says Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate expert at Northeastern University in Boston. "He has to seem to that viewing audience that he's ready to move into the White House tomorrow and take care of the country."

"He has to diminish George W. Bush without being personally mean about it," Schroeder says, even as he tries to "dispel the negative stereotypes that have been created about him."

And he needs to know when to be still, suggested Richard O'Dor, lecturer in public policy studies and coach of Duke University's debating club.

Kerry needs to hold back enough to give Bush the opportunity and time to create errors, O'Dor says. "I would suggest that he needs to keep his answers simple, he needs to shorten his sentences, he needs to eliminate any explanations of explanations."

Candidates' stands not well known

If matching presidential candidates to their positions on basic issues were like a Jeopardy! category, most Americans wouldn't earn a single dollar.

More than half of those polled by the National Annenberg Election Survey didn't know President Bush alone favors allowing private investments of some Social Security money. Nearly as many didn't know that only Democratic candidate John Kerry proposes getting rid of tax breaks for the overseas profits of U.S. companies.

Importing drugs from Canada? That's a Kerry issue, but nearly half either didn't know or thought Bush also supported changing federal law to allow for drug imports from Canada.

Eliminating the tax on estates? Two-thirds didn't know that's a Bush proposal.

Annenberg analyst Kate Kenski blamed the candidates for not stressing their points of view and the news media for focusing on character assessments and the race itself.

"In the absence of good information, voters guess and often guess incorrectly."

The poll of 1,189 adults was taken Sept. 21-26 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Tonight's big debate: Bush v. Kerry
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