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Inside the debate strategies

In a close race, Bush and Kerry know little things can matter most


When a race for President gets this close, no detail is too small to leave to chance.

Which is how it happened that a man who once oversaw Middle East peacemaking found himself haggling last week with one of Washington's most storied power players over the matter of ... colored lights.

The proposal: to allow the millions of Americans watching this Thursday's first presidential debate to see the warning signal whenever George Bush or John Kerry has exceeded his allotted time to answer a question.

It was a transparent gambit by the President's representative, former Secretary of State James Baker, to raise the famously windy challenger's chances for embarrassment. "Undignified," sniffed a Kerry strategist. "It's like a game show."

But Kerry's negotiator, lawyer Vernon Jordan, gave in just as he had to Baker's earlier demand that the lecterns be an unimposing 50 in. tall and that they be placed fully 10 ft. apart, making it less likely that the 5-ft. 11-in.

Bush will look miniaturized in comparison with the 6-ft. 4-in. Kerry. After Jordan and Baker finally came to an agreement at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, putting their heads together over a laptop to approve the official announcement, they headed for the bar.

That both men were in a celebratory mood might reflect the fact that each camp came away convinced it had snookered the other. Their 32-page "memorandum of understanding," which may still be revisited because of objections by the commission that sponsors the debates, stipulated everything from equivalent-size dressing rooms to a preapproval process for the pens or pencils Bush and Kerry will use to take notes.

The Bush camp, knowing television viewership falls off after the first debate, made sure this week's matchup would focus on foreign policy, which they feel is the President's strong suit. Team Bush has studied old videotapes of Kerry's 1996 Massachusetts Senate re-election campaign debates to the point where advisers like Karl Rove can recite portions from memory.

As a result, Bush's negotiators insisted on banning nearly all the stagecraft Kerry had used to devastating effect against his G.O.P. opponent, Governor William Weld, such as roaming from the lectern and asking direct questions.

What Kerry's camp got were three debates rather than the two that Bush's campaign initially said it wanted. Getting three contests "was much more important to us than any detail of the format," says Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. A challenger always wants as many chances to stand on the same stage as the sitting President and take some shots, and Kerry thinks the debates are a place where he can shine.

For months, the candidates have fired off stump-speech gibes, ridiculed each other through surrogates and watched independent political groups hijack the race with attacks the campaigns themselves wouldn't make.

But all that was shadowboxing compared with what will happen over 90 min. Thursday night at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., when the two men will come within handshaking distance for the first time in the race. According to the plan, a second debate next week, in St. Louis, Mo., will feature questions from an audience of voters with loose allegiances to the candidates. The third contest, on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., will focus on domestic issues.

The stakes could hardly be higher, with the debates starting at a moment when the race has once again tightened. A TIME poll conducted last week shows President Bush's advantage shrinking to 6 points from the 11-point lead he enjoyed a week after the Republican Convention.

What's more, with better than 1 in 3 voters saying they plan to watch all the debates and an additional 49% saying they will watch at least some, the matches may be the test of whether Bush and Kerry will overcome, or confirm, the doubts each has tried to sow about the other in the minds of voters.

According to the poll, of the 19% of voters who claim they are undecided or could still change their minds, 69% say the debates may be what clinches it for them.

There are some obvious traps for each candidate. Even as Bush's team was congratulating itself for rearranging the debate order to put foreign policy first, there were forces at work that might undercut that advantage. Kerry finally seems to be finding his voice on the Iraq war, just as the news from that country is being dominated anew by beheadings and car bombings.

In TIME's poll, taken a week after Kerry launched his broadside that Bush was "living in a fantasy world of spin" about the real outlook in Iraq, only 37% of voters say Bush has been truthful in describing the situation there, whereas 55% say the situation is worse than the President says. And 51% echo Kerry's contention that the U.S. action in Iraq has made the world more dangerous, up from 46% in early September.

For Kerry, the contests are a badly needed opportunity to reintroduce himself to the electorate. About 1 in 5 voters, according to the TIME poll, still don't know enough about him to have an opinion. That segment of the population has actually grown in recent weeks.

One perception that has taken root is that Kerry is a flip-flopper. Only 37% of voters say they believe he sticks to his positions; 84% say that about Bush. So it could be all but fatal for Kerry to do or say anything in the debates that might reinforce that image.

With so much on the line, Bush started prepping this summer and has had occasional full-length dress rehearsals, but the pace picked up last weekend at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who played Al Gore in the 2000 drill, stood in for Kerry, and admaker Mark McKinnon assumed the role of the first debate moderator.

It all took place in a one-story building known as the Conference Center, where Bush practiced behind a lectern and aides flashed cue cards that told him how much time he had left, just as officials will at the debate. Sessions were scheduled for 9 p.m. E.T. so that the early-to-bed Bush could set his body clock to the precise time of the real thing.

Aides have given Bush audiocassettes of Kerry's favorite attack lines, which the President listens to as he flies between campaign events on Air Force One and sometimes as he works out.

The political team started preparing for this phase of the campaign more than six months ago, during the Democratic primaries. Gathering in the Montana West conference room at the Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va., Bush aides and members of the Republican National Committee huddled around the television to watch the Democratic candidates debate, waiting to respond to any attack the major candidates made on the President. Some of the talking points, e-mails and press releases they generated were issued then, but a lot of the other material disappeared into a computer network accessible only to officials of the campaign.

The network was set up to test the rapid-response reflexes of the Bush team and perfect a system of information sharing that the President's spinners will use this week to highlight Kerry's misses and Bush's hits on the debate stage.

All those Democratic-primary debates also kept Kerry in practice, his advisers say. And windsurfing wasn't the only thing he was doing in Nantucket, Mass., during the Republican Convention. His campaign has guarded his debate preparation as closely as they did his selection of a running mate, making sure that only a handful of advisers are in the room when he drills.

Among them: campaign manager Cahill; admaker and speechwriter Bob Shrum, who helped get Kerry in fighting shape back in 1996; and former top Gore aide Ron Klain. Kerry's longtime adviser Jonathan Winer is charged with making sure the candidate is prepared on every issue. Bush is being played by Greg Craig, who was White House special counsel during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial. Wife Teresa is often on hand for the prep sessions, but one source said she has little to say, at least in front of the others.

Considering that Kerry has vacation homes in Nantucket and Sun Valley, Idaho, and his wife owns an estate near Pittsburgh, Pa., his choice of debate boot camp is downright modest. He has encamped in Wisconsin, 40 miles outside Madison, at the House on the Rock Resort, where a two-room suite goes for $199 a night.

The facility provides ample biking and hiking trails for a candidate who aides say doesn't like to do more than about two hours of debate practice in a row without taking a break. It doesn't hurt that House on the Rock is smack in the middle of a crucial swing state where recent polls have shown Kerry struggling.

Past performances suggest that both sides have plenty to fear in their three engagements. "You will never see a more personable John Kerry than in these debates," predicts Weld, who in June met at Bush headquarters with imagemaker Karen Hughes and White House communications director Dan Bartlett and since then has been offering tips to campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

His warning to them, Weld told TIME, is this: "Watch out for this guy. He is incredibly quick and well versed on substance. Don't expect him to make a mistake or to come across as aloof. This is his turf." Kerry, after all, founded a debating society at his prep school. Bush's chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, says he knows Kerry's record and is not spinning when he describes the challenger as "the best debater ever to run for President" and even "better than Cicero." But Weld's advice apparently has yet to seep in.

Bush's top advisers believe it is unlikely that Kerry will be able to make the personal connection with voters that can be so important in presidential debates. "The biggest test for Kerry," says a senior Bush adviser, "is whether anyone wants him in their living room."

Weld learned otherwise the hard way. The well-liked Massachusetts Governor knew he was in trouble from the first of his eight debates with Kerry, when he pointed to the mother of a slain police officer in the audience and challenged the Senator to explain his opposition to the death penalty.

Kerry began by calling cop killers "scum," then said, "I know something about killing," understanding that nearly every voter watching would make the connection that Weld, who had a bad back, had got out of going to Vietnam. "He then went on about his experiences in Vietnam," Weld recalls. "Everybody forgot what the question had been."

But if Kerry is at his rhetorical best when he's feeling the heat, it's not the only thing the Bush camp has noticed about him. Even as Kerry was turning the tables on Weld over the death penalty, he kept wiping a dribble of perspiration that was creeping from his right temple to his eye. "He's a sweater," chortles a G.O.P. official, "and women don't like sweaters."

That's why Bush's team was happy to have the Kerry campaign climb down from its demand that the debate hall be chilled to below 70 degrees. The Jordan-Baker agreement stipulates that the debate commission use "best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature according to industry standards." Whatever those are.

If Kerry's strongest debating weapon is agility, Bush's is the discipline to stick to his talking points. "No matter what the question, he delivers the message he wants delivered, and he's very, very good at it," recalls Ann Richards, whom Bush unseated in 1994 to become Texas Governor.

In their debate, while Richards tried to make the case that Bush had been a serial failure in business suggesting he would be out of his depth as Governor he coolly accused her of trying to distract voters from the issues facing Texas, reciting over and over his mantra of welfare reform, juvenile justice and education. "He kicked her butt across Texas," says a senior Kerry adviser.

It was a style that would also put Gore at a disadvantage six years later, and Kerry's challenge, Richards predicts, will be to do what neither she nor Gore could: "Insist on some explanations and some details and not allow him to gloss over issues." But Cahill concedes that Kerry's chances and those of the debate moderators will be limited by the Bush campaign's insistence that follow-up questions and rebuttals be sharply restricted.

The biggest mistake any candidate can make is to think of these as debates at all. Reality TV is more like it. "People watch these things more like they are watching Friends than the way they watch the Harvard and Yale debate societies," says Chris Lehane, who was Gore's press secretary. "They're not watching to see who scores the points. They're watching to see who they connect with and feel comfortable with."

Every now and then, magic can happen. It wasn't until Ronald Reagan demolished Jimmy Carter's repeated critique of his position on Medicare with "There you go again" that many Americans began to get comfortable with the idea of Reagan in the Oval Office. But more often, what voters take away from the debates is confirmation of their misgivings about a candidate: Richard Nixon's inner darkness, Gerald Ford's cluelessness, George H.W. Bush's aloofness, Gore's changeability.

And the debate isn't over when the candidates have finished their closing statements. Just as important to their campaigns will be winning the post-debate effort to spin what actually happened. It wasn't until a day or two after the first debate in 2000 that the analysis turned to Gore's exaggerated claims and his patronizing sighs.

But it so neatly fit with the existing narrative about Gore that it became more important than anything else that happened that night particularly among the vast majority of Americans who had not watched the debate with their own eyes. A study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found nonviewers' opinions of Gore eroding as the coverage of his manner grew more negative.

So for all the energy the campaigns put into preparing for every eventuality before the debates, the greatest debate may be the one that comes after they're over.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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