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Friday, October 1, 2004

Listen to what they said,
not how they said it


Editorial

On Thursday night the voters got their first chance to compare President Bush and John Kerry in a head-to-head "debate."

The "debates" conducted under the auspices of the Commission on Presidential Debates are not really debates at all. The predetermined rules of engagement did not allow Bush and Kerry to question each other. These debates really are dueling press conferences that have been scripted to the second, carefully rehearsed and highly polished.

If you were expecting Lincoln and Douglas, or even Kennedy and Nixon, you probably were disappointed.

Yet each candidate was able to hammer home their most important themes. In Bush's case that there must be absolute certainty in the world about what the President of the United States is willing to do. For Kerry, it was that Bush's "certainty" blinded him to the reality that Iraq was not as dangerous as he thought.

The candidates and their handlers negotiated everything from the length of the answers to the heights of the lecterns. Both men wanted the opportunity to come off as decisive leaders in complete control of their surroundings and the issues that will confront them. As evidenced by the reader comments below, supporters of both candidates believe they succeeded.

The one thing the candidates could not control, and the one thing that still makes these encounters worthwhile for the voters, is the intense scrutiny they receive. Bush and Kerry were in a facedown in front of all America. Most of what voters usually hear about the candidates comes from their opponents. But in the debates, the national television audience of millions hears a candidate's unfiltered words and gets to make an instant comparison to the unfiltered words of the other guy.

The 90-minute session at the University of Miami centered on foreign affairs, an area in which a sitting president with four years of practical experience in the subject has an automatic edge. Bush's strategy was to be optimistic about the war in Iraq, dwelling on the fact that Iraq, and the world at large, are far better off with Saddam Hussein removed from power. He wanted to remind everyone he was the one who got Saddam, while Kerry was the one who seemed to hesitate on paying for the war.

Kerry's task was more difficult. His job was to present himself as a credible could-be commander-in-chief. He needed to criticize Bush's handling of the war, with its 1,000 American casualties, but honor the troops and support the overall goal of stabilizing Iraq. The one thing he could not afford to do was appear indecisive

The arguments and the spin began long before the 9 p.m. start of the show Thursday. The Kerry-Edwards campaign had prepared 170 pages of rebuttals to anything Bush might say before the president uttered a word. Kerry supporters were poised to respond with talking points in a media blitz as soon as the debate hit the airwaves. The Web site johnkerry.com became a rapid response center, with rebuttals and fact checks of anything the president said going out in real time while the debate was still airing Thursday.

Nor did the Bush campaign sit backstage waiting for the debate to begin. The president spent Thursday morning touring hurricane-damaged Florida, ensuring that the pre-debate news shows would feature shots of the president being presidential. It was Bush's fifth storm tour to date, meaning he hit the Florida coast one more time than the actual hurricanes.

Before Election Day, Bush and Kerry will meet for two more of these debates - Oct. 8 in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz. Vice President Dick Cheney and challenger John Edwards will meet in Cleveland on Oct. 5. Modern presidential politics treats these debates as the ultimate in campaign appearances. We urge the voters to concentrate on the substance, not the appearance. This is your chance to concentrate on what the candidates say. Remember that is more important than how they look on television while they are saying it.



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