President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry will meet here Thursday night for a high-stakes debate that will produce their first direct confrontation over the war in Iraq and that strategists say will be Kerry's best opportunity to shake up a contest that is tilting in Bush's direction.
The two candidates have sparred heatedly over Iraq for months, with Bush accusing Kerry of shifting his positions on whether the war was right or wrong and with the Massachusetts senator newly on the offensive, charging that the president has made a series of decisions that have produced a quagmire in Iraq and left the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
Kerry comes to the first of three presidential debates under pressure to rise to the moment. Over the past week, nearly a dozen national polls have been released. When taken together, they suggest that Bush is leading by five to six percentage points. Beyond that, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll and other surveys show that on the major issues in the campaign and on a series of personal and presidential attributes, voters view Bush more favorably than Kerry.
Both sides know that debates can change the dynamic of a campaign, but a senior Kerry adviser, who declined to be identified so he could speak freely, said his candidate must use Thursday's debate to erode Bush's advantage on the Iraq war and terrorism or face a daunting challenge in the final four weeks of the campaign.
After wrapping up debate preparations, Bush and Kerry arrived Wednesday in Florida, where memories remain strong of the bitter 36-day recount battle in 2000 that with the help of the Supreme Court decided the outcome of that election.
"I am looking forward to tomorrow night for an opportunity to be able to share with Americans the truth, not sound bites, not the advertisements, but the truth," Kerry told a small crowd upon his arrival from Wisconsin, where he spent the past three days preparing for the debate.
Bush, who did his preparation at his Texas ranch, toured a farm in central Florida damaged by three of the four hurricanes that have hit this state in the past six weeks. He then flew to Miami. It was his fifth storm-related trip to the state, and he again promised to press Congress for money to help with the cleanup.
Many Floridians have put presidential politics on hold as they try to recover from billions of dollars in damage and try to repair homes and businesses and disrupted lives. Both sides say that they believe the race in Florida remains extremely close and that its 27 electoral votes once again could play a crucial role in determining the election's outcome.
Thursday's debate, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, will run for 90 minutes and be carried on major broadcast and cable television networks, beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern time. The two men will stand at lecterns for the event, which will be moderated by PBS's Jim Lehrer.
The Bush and Kerry campaigns negotiated extraordinarily tight terms of engagement for the debates that, among other things, rule out direct questioning by the candidates of each other. Still, both sides expect a lively encounter.
The debates will continue on Tuesday, when Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards will face off at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. On Oct. 8, Bush and Kerry will meet at Washington University in St. Louis for a town-hall-meeting-style debate, and they will conclude the series on Oct. 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Debates can change the direction of presidential races. In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan used his only debate with President Jimmy Carter to overcome questions about his capacity to be president and turned a close race into an electoral landslide.
Bush advisers said the president will try to project resolve and optimism about the war in Iraq while challenging Kerry as indecisive and pessimistic. "John Kerry's task is heavy," said Matthew Dowd, senior strategist for the Bush campaign. "He has to do in 90 minutes what he hasn't been able to do in two years, which is give credibility to what he says."
Kerry advisers said he will aggressively challenge Bush over Iraq by pressing the president to explain why he went to war, why the aftermath is so bloody and chaotic and why he has not laid out a clear plan for stabilizing the country and bringing U.S. troops home. "He's going to have an appointment with his record, which he has avoided nicely," said Joel Johnson, a senior Kerry strategist.
Edwards, in a conversation with radio host Don Imus, said Bush would be under pressure to acknowledge the current difficulties in Iraq. "It will be interesting to see whether he keeps trying to say everything is going well, because everyone knows that's not true."
Bush intends to pin down Kerry on whether voters can trust what he says, and the senator stumbled into another flap on that front when he tried to explain why he had said last spring he had voted for an $87 billion appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan before he had voted against it.
In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America," Kerry said he made an "inarticulate" comment late at night after a long day of campaigning that had left him tired. In fact, he uttered those words at a midday event.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials said the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI had recently sent a bulletin to local law enforcement officials warning that terrorists might attempt an attack in the Miami area. A spokesman said there is no specific information about a plot and said the warning was similar to others sent out before high-profile events.
Kerry and the Democratic National Committee continued their pre-debate advertising barrage Wednesday. One new spot asks: "Why did George Bush go to war in Iraq? First it was weapons of mass destruction. Later, Iraq's links to al Qaeda. One reason after another -- a new one offered every time the facts crumble." A second Kerry ad pitches an energy independence plan as an alternative to relying on the "Saudi royal family."
A DNC spot quotes three Republicans -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) -- as offering downbeat assessments of the war. "This week it will come down to one question," the narrator says. "Will Americans finally hear the real truth about Iraq?"
Staff writers Howard Kurtz and John Mintz in Washington contributed to this report.