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Inside Politics

Stakes high heading into debates

Kerry, Bush face-to-face for first time

By Greg Botelho

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(CNN) -- The presidential debates present both opportunity and peril for the two top candidates, with Sen. John Kerry hoping a strong performance spurs a decisive rally and President Bush aiming to seal his re-election.

The Democratic and Republican nominees meet three times in 13 days, the first 90-minute forum beginning Thursday at 9 p.m. in Coral Gables, Florida. Their respective running mates, Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney, will debate on October 5 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Campaigns agree to 3 presidential debates)

Most national polls show Bush sporting a job approval rating around 50 percent and clinging to a small, but not insurmountable lead over Kerry. Five weeks before November 2, both candidates hope the debates boost their standing in one of the most contentious campaigns in decades. (Bush apparently leads Kerry in pre-debate poll)

"At their most influential, debates probably move public opinion only a few percentage points. But that can be critical," said University of Alabama political science professor David Lanoue. "This year is close to being the perfect storm for presidential debates having an effect."

"Something has to happen to break one guy loose," added Alan Schroeder, author of "Televised Presidential Debates: 40 Years of High-Risk TV" and a professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. "The only thing left, barring some major world event, is the debates."

Days ahead of the Florida forum, the campaigns and the Commission on Presidential Debates continued to hammer out details -- many of which, such as strict limits on how the candidates and the audience can interact, seemed intended to minimize surprises. (Bush, Kerry gear up for first debate)

Still, millions will see the debates on live television -- which, by definition, is spontaneous -- heightening the prospects of tension, gaffes and raw exhibitions of candidates' character, communication ability and expertise under fire.

"They are the most unscripted thing on the campaign trail, which isn't to say they're totally unscripted," Schroeder said. "Above all else, presidential debates are a form of television."

The stakes are particularly high for Kerry, target of frequent -- and, experts say, successful -- GOP characterization as a slippery politician ill-prepared to lead in a dangerous world.

"The debates give him an excellent opportunity to break through the noise with no filters, no reporters, no spin doctors, just John Kerry," Lanoue said.

Onus on Kerry

After scoring a negligible poll bounce from his party's convention in July, Kerry lost momentum as his actions during and after the Vietnam War dominated headlines in August. Bush opened up a lead after the GOP convention, which lauded the president's leadership in the war against terrorism and tied the Iraq conflict to that fight.

Based on state polling as of last Thursday and interviews with campaign insiders and political analysts, a CNN survey found that Bush would win 301 electoral votes to Kerry's 237. But while Bush enters the week as the front-runner, some polls show the gap narrowing in recent days.

While most political experts agree Kerry is down, few count him out -- especially with the debates coming up.

"If he can answer questions about being a flip-flopper, show that he will be strong fighting terrorism, show he has a plan and will stick to it -- more than any sound-bite or witticism, that could make a difference in this election," said Lanoue, co-author of "The Joint Press Conference," a book about presidential debates.

The debates mark the first time Kerry will match up face-to-face with Bush, a fact that has elevated lower-profile candidates in the past, like Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960. (JFK, Nixon usher in marriage of TV, politics)

Experts say that, whereas Bush is a known quantity to voters, Kerry can use the debates to portray himself as a trustworthy, cogent and empathetic figure.

"How you look saying something matters," said Bruce DuMont, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "Kerry has to look warmer, fuzzier, more comfortable and more likable."

David Birdsell, professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York, said Kerry needs to focus on combating the "flip-flopper" label by showing he can explain himself in "clear, succinct and available terms" as an appealing alternative to Bush.

"You can't just say I'm a trustworthy guy, you have to show it," said Birdsell, co-author of "Presidential Debates." "He's got to be the same John Kerry in the first through the third debate, making that consistency part of his trustworthiness appeal."

Bush also faces serious questions heading into the debates. Democrats, led by Kerry, have called him out-of-touch with what is happening in Iraq and with the economic, health care and other problems facing millions of Americans.

Birdsell said Bush needs to show humility, compassion -- especially for U.S. soldiers -- and expertise on policy during the debates, while trying to reinforce his perceived advantage, according to polls, on national security and foreign policy issues.

"Until now, Bush's approach has been defensive: We are a nation at war, and we can't afford a change," Birdsell said. "And lately, people seem to agree with him."

But Lanoue says the onus is on Kerry to prove he can be a resolute, clear-minded leader.

"If the challenger can't answer those concerns the public has, voters will go for the devil they know," he said.

Intense spotlight

Birdsell says campaign activity may slow down appreciably in the next two weeks, as both sides concentrate on preparing for the debates and managing reaction to them.

"The expectations game can make a lot of difference," said Birdsell, noting that the media often key in on the candidate who outperforms or underperforms expectations. "But people are looking at what the campaigns say much more skeptically this year."

In fact, the spin began weeks ago, with Kerry staffers insisting Bush has never lost a debate and top GOP strategist Matthew Dowd favorably comparing the senator to the Roman orator and statesman Cicero.

If history is any indication, tens of millions will closely watch the debates, with many more hearing about them through the prism of radio, television news and print publications.

In 1976, President Ford's comment during his debate with then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter that the Soviets did not dominate Eastern Europe received extensive -- and decidedly negative -- play in the media.

The media similarly highlighted Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis' detached response in 1988 about what he'd do if his wife were raped, and President George H.W. Bush's eyeing his watch during a 1992 "town hall" forum. In 2000, the media focused on Vice President Al Gore's sighs -- a sign of condescension, some said -- in his first debate with George W. Bush.

Such history lessons likely won't be lost on Bush or Kerry.

"For all the candidates, the main imperative is not to make a mistake, because mistakes have traditionally really resounded in the post-debate coverage," Schroeder said.

In an already tight campaign and amid intense media scrutiny, candidates must also try to look comfortable and ideally likable in the debates -- plainly explaining complex stances, critiquing their foes and exhibiting warmth, all in a brief period.

"The electorate gets to see these guys on a tightrope," Schroeder said. "That's a good test because, as president, you're always under pressure."

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