For Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), stuck in second place with just five weeks left in the presidential campaign, the debates that begin this week may be the best chance remaining to close the sale with voters and beat President Bush.
Widespread polling, stubbornly consistent for months, finds Bush vulnerable. Voters report that they are unhappy with the war in Iraq, the state of the economy and the general direction of the country. Yet the same polls indicate that more voters do not like his Democratic challenger than do.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), left, and President Bush are expected to bring different strengths and styles to their three televised debates, the first of which will be held Thursday. Kerry, a former high school and college debate star, is aggressive and well-versed in the facts. Bush often connects with listeners on an emotional level.
(Jacqueline Larma -- AP)
Beating Bush in these debates -- the first on Thursday at the University of Miami -- will be no easy matter, judging from the extensive record Bush and Kerry have compiled in televised face-offs. The president is an unorthodox debater but an effective one, especially against candidates schooled in the traditional rules of debate, such as Kerry.
"Both of them are good. Bush has never lost a debate that I know of," said Democratic campaign strategist Chuck Dolan. "He's very cool; he stays on message. He approaches debates in a very different way than most other politicians."
Against that, Kerry brings an aggressive style and a command of the minute details of policy -- qualities, it must be said, that were not enough to win when Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Vice President Al Gore took them into battle against Bush in 1994 and 2000.
The first encounter will focus on foreign policy. Bush's debate history shows one thing above all: His themes in debate are the same ones he preaches on the trail. By that yardstick, Bush will defend the war as a tough decision with no acceptable alternative. "Do I trust Saddam Hussein? Do I forget the lessons of September the 11th or take action to defend this country?" Bush repeats in speeches across the country. "Given that choice, I will defend America every time."
Kerry's tone on the campaign trail in recent days suggests that he will go after the president aggressively on Iraq. "The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy: al Qaeda," Kerry said last week. "George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority."
But while civics teachers, activists and other concerned citizens might not like to hear it, presidential debates are at least as much about style as substance, veterans of the process agree.
"They call them debates, but they're not debates," said Republican debate coach Sheila Tate. "They're platforms for the two candidates to position themselves" for an audience of undecided voters who, research shows, tend to rely on their gut, Tate said.
Elaborate rules, negotiated by the rival campaigns, guarantee that the sessions are more side by side than head to head; direct engagement is limited. What matters most is not which candidate dominates the room but which one comes across most powerfully, in planned and unplanned stylistic ways, on television. And as the late, legendary BBC interviewer Robin Day once explained, television "strikes at the emotions rather than the intellect."
Dolan learned this lesson the hard way in 1988. He was in the room when the Democratic nominee, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, fielded a question about his opposition to the death penalty for murderers: Would he feel the same way if it were his own wife who was slain?
"We could see in the hall that it didn't go well," Dolan said of his candidate's coldly detached answer. "Then I saw it later replayed on television, and you could see it was devastating."
Many Democrats who watched an often stumble-tongued Bush go from inexperienced candidate for Texas governor to incumbent president battling for reelection have wondered where he gets his ability to win debates against candidates with more seasoning, more verbal dexterity, and a greater supply of names and numbers at their mental fingertips.
Part of it, Tate argues, is that Bush "knows his mind" and thus projects himself clearly. But it is also true that, for a man who is not a trained actor, Bush has a highly expressive face on television, and he uses it to good effect in underlining his points while undermining his opponent.