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Inside Politics

Campaigns spin debate advantage

Will viewers see 'the heart and soul of the candidates'?

Sen. John Kerry talks with Diane Sawyer while taping an interview for ABC TV, prior to traveling Wednesday to Florida.
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CNN's Kelly Wallace on storm-swept Florida and the debates.
September 30
First presidential debate: University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida

October 5
Vice presidential debate: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

October 8
Second presidential debate: Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

October 13
Third presidential debate: Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

All debates start at 9 p.m. ET
• Audio Slide Show: Debate history
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George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- The day before the much-anticipated first debate between the presidential candidates, the spin machines for both campaigns are working overtime, claiming that their man has an advantage going into the face-off.

"We feel like we're in a good position in this debate ... because the president knows what he thinks, why he thinks the way that he does, what he wants to do in the future, where he wants to lead the nation, and that stands in stark contrast to his opponent," said Mary Matalin, an adviser to President Bush's campaign.

Staffers in Sen. John Kerry's campaign said the Democrat's position -- currently behind in the polls -- is actually a good way to enter such a forum.

"I think it is always good to go into one of these high-profile debates as an underdog," said Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry.

"At the end, the important thing is you strip away all the negativity from the debate ... and you really get to look into the heart and soul of the candidates and say who really is going to get us to where we need to be as a nation and where are we going to be in the world at the end of the next four years after this president serves."

In recent days, both sides have also been careful to praise their opponents as skilled in the art of debating. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)

Joe Lockhart, a senior adviser to Kerry, said Bush has won every debate in which he has participated.

"Debates, in the modern political system, are not won by the person who knows the most information; they're won by the person who is most persuasive for their position," Lockhart said. "And George Bush has proven time and time again that he is a very persuasive debater. It does, of course, seem at times like he doesn't have all the facts straight, but he seems to do it in a way that gives you a sense of commitment and a sense of what direction he wants to go." (Stakes high heading into debates)

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, emphasized Monday that Kerry is a skilled debater, pointing to the seven "epic debates" he had in 1996 with then-Gov. Bill Weld in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts.

The Democrat was an all-star debater in college and has honed his skills during 20 years in the Senate, Bartlett said.

The debates are considered a crucial point in what has been a lengthy campaign. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday showed that 18 percent of registered voters said the three debates would make a difference when they decided for whom they would cast their ballot in November. (Poll suggests Bush lead)

Kerry was traveling Wednesday to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Spring Green, Wisconsin, where he was preparing for the debate. (Authorities warn of possible debate threats)

"He is focused; he is totally focused on this preparation and on this debate," said senior adviser Susan Rice on CNN "It is an opportunity for the American people to see that he is a strong, smart, tough leader."

President Bush had been getting ready for the debate at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, but will tour a hurricane-damaged citrus grove later Wednesday in Florida.

The two men will come face-to-face under highly orchestrated rules at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, on Thursday for the first debate, which begins at 9 p.m. ET.

A 32-page agreement reached last week between the two campaigns sets out the rules for the debates with great specificity, down to details such as the temperature of the hall, what kind of paper can be used to take notes and who can be standing in the wings backstage. (Networks balk at debate agreement)

No matter the rules, Matalin said, and no matter how great a debater Kerry is, the senator "will be disadvantaged in the debate."

"The problem for Senator Kerry is that he, his record and his campaign has been inconsistent ... and the challenge for Senator Kerry at this debate is to bring some clarity to his massive vacillation throughout this campaign, particularly on the issues most important to Americans, that is national security," she said. "He has been all over the board, I think he has 10 distinct positions on Iraq."

McCurry said the debate is an opportunity for the president to finally respond to some tough questions about the situation in Iraq.

"President Bush knows what he needs to do tomorrow night, but you know he probably won't do it, and what he really needs to do is answer questions that the American people have about where he would lead us in Iraq (and) how we deal with the consequences of his very wrong choices," he said on CNN's "American Morning."

A second debate will be October 8 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and a third is scheduled for October 13 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

A vice presidential debate will be October 5 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

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