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The Debates Are Key

Monday, 13 September 2004 12:00 AM

For Kerry these debates - especially the first 30 minutes of the first debate, when there will be the maximum viewing audience of any political event this year - have become the make or break events in his life-long quest to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

His inept post-convention meandering campaign - and his career of playing both sides of all issues - has put him exactly where a challenger cannot be: on the defensive instead of relentlessly attacking the already-weakened incumbent.

Barring an unforeseen and uncontrollable event - an attack, a civil war in Iraq, a major economic event (Black Monday-ish) - Team Kerry has little opportunity left to turn the momentum around in this race. Commercials and speeches aren’t enough; Kerry needs ‘something’ to shake up the dynamic of the entire race.

His last, best hope is this: in the first debate he walks out onto the stage and proceeds to do two things simultaneously: A) Re-introduce himself to the American people as a strong, competent leader in command of the situation; and B) tear apart Bush, get him rattled and ‘off-message’ and provoke him into making a gaffe which will then dominate the campaign for the next week. (There was one two weeks ago when Mr. Bush said “I don’t think we can win” the War on Terror. Such a mistake in a debate potentially could turn the entire campaign around.)

These debates often do little to change perceptions of candidates; usually they serve to harden each side. But a gaffe is a gaffe and we as a nation focus on them with obsessive detail. Remember Ford’s “Poland is free”? That mistake may have cost him a full term! And Al Gore’s sighs? They ruined his chance at the White House!

Bush does a good job in his debates by sticking to a disciplined game plan. He is always underestimated by his opponents - at their own peril - and he often comes out ahead. Now, as President of the United States he will have an extra cushion of respect that makes attacking him even more difficult.

However, as a President, he is also more prone to getting lax in his head-to-head debate prep. It is very difficult for White House staff to rehearse with a sitting president and to really tear into him the way they would with a regular candidate. Staff simply cannot speak to a president as frankly as they can to others; many presidents hear little dissent personally while in office. They live in a bubble and are surrounded by staff, family and friends who tell them only good things day and night.

Then - suddenly - the President of the United States is standing on a stage in front of the world and his opponent is not quite as supportive and positive as the White House staff has been. And he is put ‘off’ by the tone and ferocity of his opponent.

Kerry has to tread a fine line: respectful of the office of the Presidency but hard on the Bush record. And he has to attack that record concisely, coherently and quickly; if he drags it out in his normal boring manner, viewers are going to head to other shows and games.

Kerry’s biggest problem? He is un-likeable. He is Lurch who flip-flops, dissembles and connives.

That image has to be changed by his debate performances. He has to have voters walk away from these debates saying something like this: “Boy, Bush made some big mistakes and that Kerry...well, he is not as bad as I had heard he was.”

If Kerry can do that - then this race is going to tighten up right away. And then the Passion Differential (the anti-Bush sentiment outweighs the pro-Bush feeling in intensity that will manifest itself in disproportionate turnout on Election Day).

And, in the other way, Bush is going to try to use the debates to tweak Kerry on his many positions on all sides of every issue to reinforce Kerry’s ‘flip-flopping’ image.

Both camps today are furiously prepping for the debates - and negotiating the terms and conditions of each debate right down to a key question: what to do about Kerry’s six inch height advantage? The White House is afraid of Kerry ‘towering’ over a ‘diminished’ president - and the subliminal message that sends.

Look for talk of the debates to heat up daily now as each campaign focuses on them.

They may be the key to this year’s election.

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For Kerry these debates - especially the first 30 minutes of the first debate, when there will be the maximum viewing audience of any political event this year - have become the make or break events in his life-long quest to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His...
The,Debates,Are,Key
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2004-00-13
Monday, 13 September 2004 12:00 AM
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