On the eve of the debates people are so on edge in New York that every gathering has become like a visit to the dentist. In this town of Democrats, Karl Rove's real or imagined brilliance has got people dangerously psyched out. Someone in a group always produces some new vulnerability of Kerry's to drill down on, some fresh tactical error to palpitate about.

An expectation reversal has been going on that's strange to find among a candidate's own supporters. Even without the goring Bush has given him all summer, Kerry has lowered opinions of his campaigning skills so far that he now has to make a comeback tonight just to keep his own side happy. With George Stephanopoulos on ABC last Sunday, the usually fierce congressman and former Clinton switchblade Rahm Emanuel looked so distracted and unhappy defending Kerry's war positions against Republican mouth Stuart Stevens that I half expected him to excuse himself in the middle of the show and catch a flight back to Chicago.

With all the mythology about Kerry's gift of coming from behind, New Yorkers are watching and hoping like fundamentalists awaiting the rapture. "What will it be like?" they ask one another. A mysterious subtle transformation of will that suffuses Kerry with winner's luck? A defining moment when he soothes his wounded honor with a shaft of killing wit that at last unmasks Bush? If so, could it please happen in prime time tonight? (Maybe, just in case, Kerry should wear cowboy boots to reduce the president still further to the size of Dr. Ruth.)

Among the big-donor crowd, the good-closer cliche has worn out its welcome. They have had it with reading in the New York Times that the past two months of flubs were part of some weird subliminal strategy. Who does Kerry think he is? Bob Dylan? Enough already with the near-death experiences. Mr. Closer, give us closure.

For CEOs who dug deep this time, the contender bears not just their fragile hopes but their robust checks. Electability was supposed to be Kerry's thing. That's why they ran from their kids' loony choice, Howard Dean, who this week on the "Today" show suddenly sounded so sane and smart. While Dean's antiwar position now looks as prescient as Richard Clarke before 9/11, Kerry has morphed into Dukakis on stilts.

The past weeks have gotten Democratic wallets so rattled, billionaire philanthropist George Soros is hitting the road himself on his own tour of 12 cities in swing states. He may not exactly be Springsteen, but maybe he can warm up the crowds by pulling an Oprah stunt: Vote for Kerry, drive home a new Pontiac!

Part of the weird mood of frustration and self-directed anger is that it's already clear that whatever brilliance Kerry pulls out of the hat, the post-debate spin from the Bush campaign and the cable news hunger for the political version of the Janet Jackson moment fuse perfectly with the likelihood of some emblematic sound bite or visual moment that purportedly buries Kerry. The Rorschach test of what constitutes a "win" has always been so unpredictable anyway. Former Jimmy Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg tells me that right after Ronald Reagan's famous "There you go again!" put-away, the Carter team were all high-fiving at their candidate's lucky break. Reagan had just blatantly misrepresented his position on Social Security -- and Carter had pointed it out so deftly that the Gipper was left only with this lame exhalation of pretended tedium. The watchdog press would take care of the rest . . . Exit Carter. And that was in 1980, long before the Fox News/talk radio echo chamber.

When Democrats say they hope their guy does well, what they really mean is they hope Bush does something definitively, theatrically awful. Lately the president has been scarily good for someone uttering statements almost entirely detached from reality. On the stump, with his sleeves rolled up and his hand-held mike, he's been grooving to the music of the polls. The big hope for Democrats is a moment that will reveal his inner dread. How long will it be till the news in Iraq gets so bad that even the most inattentive member of the voting public will start to wonder if our war president is not Winston Churchill, but Captain Ahab? If it takes more than five weeks, he just might be home free.

On Bill O'Reilly's show Tuesday the president showed encouraging signs. At one point he suddenly addressed the host as "Factor." ("Did he call me Factor?" O'Reilly marveled to the camera with a quizzical smile.) Also, it may be my imagination, but the Bush laugh, which has always been a rusty, staccato "heh heh heh," now sounds increasingly sandpapery from suppressed tension.

We fixate on such things. They may be superficial, but they're all the media have left us with. After Kerry's powerful Iraq speech on Sept. 20, the clip CNN chose to keep recycling was of the candidate advancing to the lectern, adjusting his mike and reaching for a glass of water. At that climactic moment his face disappeared from the screen and four windows of blathering talking heads replaced him with their version of Iraq.

That's why tonight is the political equivalent of the Thrilla in Manila. Even though James Baker has done his damnedest in pre-debate negotiations to drain the juice from something that might have been genuinely gladiatorial, we still have a chance at last to get to the heart of two of the campaign's lingering mysteries: whether John Kerry is more than the Man Who Wasn't There, and whether George Bush is the man who isn't anywhere, at least nowhere in the vicinity of Planet Earth. The Baker rules forbid the candidates to pose questions to each other. So Kerry can't ask, "Mr. President, c'mon. Do you truly, seriously believe -- honest, now -- that things are going well and getting better in Iraq?" But maybe somebody else can.

(c) 2004, Tina Brown

A significant slip? In his interview with Bill O'Reilly, President Bush showed a chink in his verbal armor when he called the talk show host "Factor."