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The Debates: Why Kerry Is The Underdog

One thing is certain in the upcoming Presidential debates: George W. Bush won't be, to use his own word, "misunderestimated." After besting smartypants Al Gore four years ago in the court of public opinion -- if not on debate points -- Bush earned his spurs as an effective rhetorician whose folksy "average Joe" approach in televised encounters has disarmed foes in three straight elections. And while Republican spinners will build up John Kerry as a brilliant debater with a track record worthy of the National Forensic League Hall of Fame, it is the President's challenger, not the President, who is on the spot as the debates open at the University of Miami on Sept. 30.

Kerry, whose eight 1996 Senatorial debates against Republican rival William Weld are the stuff of Massachusetts legend, will have to be in top form. After six months in the lead or deadlocked, the Democratic nominee has dropped behind Bush. Equally disconcerting to Dems, Bush now is the people's choice to handle two of the three top issues -- terrorism and Iraq -- while he's holding his own on the economy. The three Presidential debates and one Vice-Presidential face-off could be Kerry's last best chance to reshape the contest. "The debates are going to be enormously important," says his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill.

For Kerry to break through, he will have to survive a clash of debating styles. Bush tends toward the vernacular, while Kerry is far more formal. The plainspoken Bush needs to avoid factual error. The more cerebral Kerry needs to avoid condescension. Immodesty is "the common mistake senators make and why they don't get elected as Presidents," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "If Kerry falls back to where he's comfortable -- I'm smarter than George W. Bush -- he will lose the debates."

Americans, say Goeas, want a candidate who is "strong enough to govern." That's why top Democrats say Kerry, while on the stage near Bush, must appear to be a plausible Commander-in-Chief. "The threshold issue [voters] want to be assured of is that they will be safe and their country will be safe," says House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). To score, Kerry must outline his plans for the war on terrorism and postwar Iraq "with a great degree of clarity and forcefulness," says Hoyer.

Changing the Subject

That's a challenge for a candidate derided as a congenital flip-flopper. But Kerry can't simply play defense on defense issues -- he needs to change the subject. Zogby polls show that voters most concerned about terrorism favor Bush by 41 percentage points. Those more worried about the economy choose Kerry by 14. "As long as Senator Kerry engages the President on the war on terrorism, he loses," says pollster John Zogby. "He has to focus on the economy."

That could be difficult. Only one debate will be devoted to domestic concerns -- the final one. History shows that "the first debate, not the last debate, is the most important," says Brookings Institution Presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "By the time they move to domestic issues, the election could be over."

Then again, debates are unpredictable, and stumbles by two incumbents -- Ford and Carter -- contributed to their defeats. But Kerry can't count on a Bush gaffe. To best the Prez, he must look smart but not elitist, strong but not strident, and decisive, not constantly inconstant. Even for a skilled debater, that's a tall order.

Both President Bush and Democrat John Kerry must attempt to frame the election's top three issues. Here's how they'll try to sway voters:


With the President holding a commanding lead on this issue, Kerry must convince voters that Bush has put Americans at risk by creating a new generation of terrorists and fomenting anti-Americanism around the world. Bush will argue that his foe's multiple positions on Iraq demonstrate that Kerry would be an inconsistent leader who would make the world a more dangerous place.


The public has grave questions about Administration planning for postwar Iraq but does not believe that Kerry would handle the situation any better. The challenger must present a clear plan for Iraq's future and a plausible scenario for assistance from erstwhile U.S. allies. Bush must convince voters that there is light at the end of a bloody tunnel and that his brand of steadfastness offers the best hope for a positive outcome.


Kerry will argue that Bush's massive tax cuts and Iraq spending have benefited the wealthy and corporate cronies while saddling middle-income Americans with the bill. He needs to persuade voters to accept a trade-off: higher taxes for some in exchange for expanded health care and initiatives to protect U.S. manufacturing jobs. The President hopes to paint Kerry as a typical tax-and-spend liberal who will destroy jobs by raising taxes on small businesses and investors.

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