Repeat after me: The debates are crucial.

But which debates?

The three that Bush and Kerry just agreed to, beginning in nine days (whatever happened to the Bush camp's insistence that they'd only do two? Was that traded for making foreign policy the first subject?)

The debate over Iraq?

The debate over Dan Rather?

The debate over whether the Democrats had anything to do with the "60 Minutes" story?

The debate over Kerry's Purple Hearts vs. Bush's non-appearance at a Guard physical?

The debate over Kerry's windsurfing habits?

Framing the debates--now that's the ballgame.

All these threads running through the news coverage today.

If you want to read the latest on the "60 Minutes" debacle--including the surprise revelation involving a CBS phone call to Joe Lockhart on behalf of Dan's mystery source--I've been slaving over this report. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A35531-2004Sep20.html

Big time exchange on Iraq yesterday. If there was any doubt that the newly arrived Clintonites have sharpened JFK's rhetoric, check out this New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2004/09/21/politics/campaign/21campaign.html?hp account:

"Charging President Bush with 'stubborn incompetence' on the war in Iraq, Senator John Kerry yesterday made his most definitive statement yet that he would not have invaded when Mr. Bush did as he delivered a point-by-point indictment of the administration's Iraq policies.

"'Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions, and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,' Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, told an invited audience of party advocates at New York University. 'Today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way,' Mr. Kerry said. 'How can he possibly be serious? Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer, resoundingly, is no, because a commander in chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe.'

"While Mr. Kerry said Saddam Hussein 'deserves his own special place in hell,' he argued, 'we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.'"

Return serve, Mr. President?

"The Bush campaign Monday moved quickly to counter a fresh assault by Democratic rival Sen. John F. Kerry on the White House's Iraq policies," says the Los Angeles Times, | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-092004bush_lat,1,3422838.story?coll=la-home-headlines "with President Bush accusing his challenger of 'twisting in the wind' and adding 'new contradictions of his old positions' on the war. 'Apparently he woke up this morning and has now decided no, we should not have invaded Iraq, after just last month saying he still would have voted for force even knowing everything we know today,' the president told supporters at a campaign event. 'Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power, not in prison.'

"Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pounced on Kerry after the Massachusetts senator accused President Bush of failing to justify the war on Iraq and creating a 'crises of historic proportions.'"

Noam Scheiber | http://www.tnr.com/etc.mhtml praises Kerry's rhetoric in the New Republic:

"John Kerry's Iraq speech at NYU is easily the best thing to come out of his mouth during the campaign. He did two things he hadn't really done before--at least not in detail. First, he described the situation in Iraq in extremely blunt terms, ticking off the rising number of American casualties, the rising number of insurgent attacks, the ever-expanding list of 'no go zones' controlled by terrorists, and the deterioration in basic living conditions for ordinary Iraqis.

"Second, he connected these disastrous facts on the ground to specific miscalculations made by the president: the expectation that we'd be greeted as liberators, the blithe unconcern about looting, the naively small number of troops we deployed for the postwar mission, the reliance on charlatans like Ahmed Chalabi, the underinvestment in training Iraqi troops and policemen. . . .

"Kerry successfully broadened the character debate from empty attributes like toughness and resolution to critical attributes like judgment, competence, and honesty. He then connected the president's deficiencies in these areas to our failures in Iraq."

He liked it! He really liked it!

We've mercifully been spared an extended Debate Over Debates, as the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/09/21/camps_finalize_debate_agreement/ reports:

"Wrangling over details until the final hours, negotiators for President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry announced yesterday that their candidates will participate in three presidential debates in the coming days, setting the stage for an intense new phase of the campaign six weeks before the election.

"Despite tussles over the timing and format, the 90-minute debates will take place more or less as initially proposed; only the subjects of the first and third debates have changed. . . .

"The biggest question mark had been the middle presidential debate, which could put Bush in the unusual position of facing questions from critics. Bush campaign aides had been reluctant to agree to the St. Louis debate, but with the president commanding a solid lead in many polls, especially in Missouri, they decided it did not present much risk."

When did taking questions from an audience become a huge risk?

Fear remains a hot campaign tactic, as this Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/specials/elections/chi-0409200229sep20,1,6652459.story?coll=chi-electionsprint-hed report makes clear:

"Remarks by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, indicating a belief that Al Qaeda operatives would prefer John Kerry in the White House, sparked a firestorm of protest Sunday from Democrats who labeled the Illinois Republican's comments as 'fear mongering' and 'un-American.'

"But a Hastert spokesman said Democrats should first work with Kerry to try to reconcile what he called 'inconsistent' positions on Iraq and homeland security. And Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, contended that a Kerry strategy on Iraq amounted to little more than 'retreat and defeat.'"

The Wall Street Journal critiques Kerry's habit of giving long answers:

"At a town-hall meeting on a basketball court here last week, retired engineer Bob Kirkpatrick stood up, praised John Kerry for protesting the Vietnam War and then asked for his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Mr. Kirkpatrick got an answer -- eventually. But first the Democratic presidential candidate wanted to tell the crowd that Republican attacks on his Vietnam-era behavior were 'really . . . an attack on the American people.' That, Mr. Kerry continued, was like President Bush's 'attack on overtime,' which, he went on, had something to do with 'settling for jobs that pay $9,000 less' than jobs outsourced overseas. And then there were weaker workplace safety rules. Which were like 'attacks' on environmental rules that were leading to 'more pollutants.'

"'Now, with respect to the Mideast and Mideast policy,' Mr. Kerry finally wound up, saying mainly that he would do more than the Bush administration to continue Clinton-era peace negotiations. 'I sensed it was an issue he wanted to avoid,' the 59-year-old Mr. Kirkpatrick said afterwards, and he left the session unsure how he would vote.

"After an August swoon, the Kerry campaign has an expanded, more experienced management team and a sharper, more aggressive message. But one thing hasn't changed much: the candidate, and his meandering verbosity, developed over 20 years deliberating in the world's greatest deliberative body, the U.S. Senate."

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com is Deeply Disturbed by a Novak column | http://www.suntimes.com/output/novak/cst-edt-novak20.html:

"Can we believe Bob Novak's prediction of a quick exit from Iraq if Bush is re-elected? This is the paragraph that had my jaw dropping:

'Well-placed sources in the administration are confident Bush's decision will be to get out. They believe that is the recommendation of his national security team and would be the recommendation of second-term officials. An informed guess might have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz as defense secretary and Stephen Hadley as national security adviser. According to my sources, all would opt for a withdrawal.'

"Et tu, Wolfie? Readers have been haranguing me for weeks because of my concern about what's going on in Iraq. But if Novak is right, the administration itself has given up. What we must demand is an acknowledgment of this before November. If this is Bush's plan, and I hope it isn't, then we need to know now. No more spin, Mr president. Deal with reality. Publicly."

Roger Simon | http://www.rogersimon.com/archive/007246.html#007246 sees a Kerry metamorphosis:

"It has taken John Kerry several months to decide that he now wants to be Howard Dean.

"Last year, Dean shocked many Democratic stalwarts and political experts by the vigor of his attack on the Iraq war and the harsh words he directed against George Bush.

"Many thought that vituperative attacks against an opponent (remember all those articles about how 'angry' Howard Dean was?) might seem like a good idea because it energized your base, but that it was a mistake because it alienated moderate swing voters, who really determined the outcome of elections.

"Dean thought this was hooey . . . Howard Dean did not win the Democratic nomination, of course. But that doesn't mean his theory was not without value, which the Kerry campaign now seems to accept.

"As if awakening from a slumber, John Kerry has roused himself and is now on the attack."

Opinion Journal's John Fund | http://www.opinionjournal.com/diary/?id=110005643 isn't so sure about that rousing:

"Says one Democratic consultant: 'I would have called you crazy if in 1989 you would have told me that a decade and a half later this party was going to nominate Dukakis's lieutenant governor--another aloof Massachusetts liberal who would overconfidently feel he would mop the floor with this clueless guy named Bush. But I fear I've seen this movie, and it's Groundhog Day.'

"Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Dukakis was a liberal at heart, but both were perceived as moderates until the fall campaign. Reporters, most of whom supported both Democrats, did all that they could to prop up that image. The need to preserve a moderate image prompted both candidates to talk evasively about issues; in his convention speech Mr. Dukakis famously declared: "This election is not about ideology, it's about competence.'. . . .

"Liberal journalists have started to pile on the Kerry campaign. 'Kerry is Dukakis, after all,' sighs Joe Klein of Time magazine. 'Deadly dull, slow to respond, trapped in Democratic banality; he actually said he was for "good jobs at good wages."'"

Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis | http://www.buzzmachine.com/ has thoughts on how CBS should have responded to its online critics on Day 1:

"Here's what Dan Rather and CBS News should have done then:

"They should have said to the bloggers, 'Thank you -- and welcome to journalism; we can use your help.'

"They should have been grateful that smart citizens using weblogs had added to the available information and helped us get closer to the truth.

"They should have engaged these bloggers in televised conversation.

"They should have revealed everything they knew so we could judge the truth.

"They should have admitted (in a day, not a week and a half) that they could be wrong.

"But they didn't. Instead, Rather and CBS issued the Big Media equivalent of I am not a crook -- namely, 'We stand by our story.'"

Ouch.

"Worse, they dissed the bloggers. Rather sniffed that this was a 'counterattack' (which is to admit that he was, indeed, on the attack) from 'partisan political operatives' (which is to say 'voters').

"Rather and CBS News exhibit the worst of Big Media arrogance: They believe they are the priests guarding the temple of truth. But the real truth is that they have set themselves up for this fall by refusing to admit that they are human, that they can make mistakes -- and, most importantly, that they have a viewpoint. That is the real issue with Rather: viewpoint."

The Nation's David Corn | http://www.davidcorn.com/ wonders how Bush can get away with saying, as he does on the stump and in ads, that Kerry is pushing a "government-run" health plan when it actually relies on private insurance:

"The disconnect between Bush's charges and reality are well-known to political reporters covering the campaign, and Bush's misrepresentation of Kerry's health care proposal has received a dollop of media coverage. But why is this not front-page material--the president purposefully telling untruths about a rather significant matter? (I'd like to see one conservative or Republican defend Bush's claim that Kerry is pushing a government 'takeover' of the health care--and do so without pointing a finger at something the Kerry campaign has done wrong.) Isn't this as important as, say, a television news show being snookered and broadcasting documents that may be fake? Or am I just too old-fashioned?"

Unfortunately, reporters hate policy disputes, so we get a lot of he said/she said.

Want more on the Kitty book? Michael Crowley | http://slate.msn.com/id/2106746/ delivers in Slate:

"Whenever Kitty Kelley writes one of her juicy, gossipy, salacious, titillating, delightful, and factually suspect biographies, we hear about the thoroughness of her research. On her publicity rounds, she leads profile writers through her house past stacks of files, brandishes thousands of pages of notes and transcripts, and tallies up the staggering numbers of interviews she conducted: 857 for her biography of Frank Sinatra, 1,002 for her book on Nancy Reagan, and 988 interviews for The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, her politically explosive new tome on the Bush clan (which includes nearly 40 showy pages of source notes and bibliography).

"But Kelley's ostentatious display of reportorial overkill is clearly just a ritual effort to pre-empt the questions that inevitably arise about her accuracy. After close to 30 years and five breathless tell-alls, it's clear that Kelley is no meticulous historian who nails down her facts with airtight precision. To the contrary, she is the consummate gossip monger, a vehicle for all the rumor and innuendo surrounding her illustrious subjects. She surely knows it as well as her readers do. People read Kelley for the same reason they read the National Enquirer: the taboo. They want to know the best rumors, have fun imagining celebrities behind closed doors, and try to separate for themselves what's true and false. Only a fool would mistake a Kitty Kelley book for one of David McCullough's magnum opuses."

No wonder she's selling a lot of books.