Struggling to put a tumultuous August behind him, John F. Kerry is increasingly turning his attention to the events he hopes will refocus the race for the White House and erase President Bush's lead: the upcoming debates.
In recent weeks, the Democratic presidential nominee has huddled several times with top advisers to study Bush's attacks, debate style and vulnerabilities as part of preparations for the first head-to-head showdown of this campaign, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 30 in the battleground state of Florida.
Kerry has told aides that Bush's debating skills, which he described privately to one aide as "cagey" but crafty, are underestimated by many Democrats. Among the Massachusetts senator's biggest concerns, a top aide said, is Bush's ability to lower expectations heading into debates and then to stick to a few simple messages during them.
To find Bush's weaknesses and exploit them, Kerry has tapped lawyer Ron Klain, a top adviser to Al Gore in 2000, to run his debate-prep team, and Greg Craig, White House special counsel during President Bill Clinton's impeachment saga, to play Bush in practice sessions. Robert Shrum, a top political adviser who was instrumental in Kerry's 1996 Senate debates with William F. Weld, is playing a prominent role in shaping and sharpening Kerry's lines. Vernon Jordan is heading a different team of advisers who are negotiating the terms and timing of the debates, but the well-known lawyer and Clinton friend is also assisting with prep work.
Kerry will meet privately for a few hours today with his core debate team, as well as Jonathan Winer, a longtime policy adviser with deep knowledge of Kerry's positions on Iraq and other key issues, aides say.
Winer's participation underscores what many Democrats consider Kerry's biggest challenge in the debates: erasing voters' doubts about his consistency on major issues, especially Iraq, and ability to lead the country during difficult times. Kerry has spent significant time on the road carefully reading Bush's speeches and arguments to prepare the kinds of succinct and clear explanations that have largely proved elusive so far.
History is full of memorable debate moments that shook up -- or helped shape -- elections: Richard M. Nixon's sweaty forehead in 1960, Ronald Reagan's "there you go again" scolding of Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Gore's guttural sigh in 2000. Kerry is no stranger to debates of some notoriety: his 1971 showdown with John O'Neill over Vietnam on "The Dick Cavett Show" and eight battles of the titans with the popular GOP moderate Weld in the 1996 race.
The 1971 debate put Kerry on the national stage and the 1996 performance kept him there and propelled him to the Democratic nomination eight years later. Kerry is considered an adept debater, though his performance in the primaries left some Democrats unimpressed.
More often than not, though, presidential debates do not dramatically change the candidates' standing in public polls. But in close races -- and both sides still predict one this year -- debates can prove decisive, especially for a challenger hoping to break through. Think Reagan in 1980. If nothing else, the debates provide the two candidates with their only head-to-head moments of the campaign and an audience in the tens of millions to woo.
In 2000, between 37.5 million and 46.6 million watched the three Gore-Bush debates, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. By comparison, 25 million watched Gore's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention that year, while 24 million tuned in for Bush's at the Republican convention. Kerry seems as concerned about knocking Bush off stride as he does about his recent stumbles, aides said. Both sides expect a larger audience than in 2000.
Last month, Kerry challenged the president to weekly debates on the issues facing voters, but he knows he will be lucky to get the three debates proposed by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission suggested debates on Sept. 30 at the University of Miami, followed by two October showdowns, one in St. Louis and the other in Arizona. Vice President Cheney will debate John Edwards in Cleveland in October.
Some Bush officials have intimated the president would like to skip the town-hall-style debate in St. Louis and stick to two debates. There is a precedent for this: In 1996 -- the last time a candidate was seeking reelection -- there were two.
Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser to Kerry, said the Bush debate strategy is built on getting his opponent and the public to underestimate his skills. Bush "is the least understood debater of the last generation," Lockhart said. "They continue to tell people that he's not that good but he has never lost a debate that I know of. Maybe in third grade. Look at Ann Richards, it was not even fair." Bush made his mark as a skilled debater during the 1994 gubernatorial debates with Richards, the Democratic Texas governor. Lockhart's comments could be construed as trying to lower the expectations for his guy, too -- a common tactic in the pre-debate positioning.
John Martilla, a longtime Kerry adviser who was involved in the 1996 debates, said Bush presents a "formidable challenge" this fall, a fact he said most Americans will be fully aware of before the first showdown. Kerry has spent at least one hour a week reading Bush's speeches, dissecting the president's most effective attacks and looking for soft spots, aides said. He read with great interest a lengthy article in a recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly comparing the debate histories of Kerry and Bush and spent three to four hours in Nantucket, Mass., during the GOP convention to start gaming out a plan, the aides said.
Martilla said Kerry's style in 1996 was to "really internalize the issue, master the material and come up with his response." This time around, "it will be much more organized" and high-stakes.