WASHINGTON - Debates matter. Just ask President Bush or Sen. John Kerry.
Their success in past debates is a big reason why they'll be sharing the stage when the curtain goes up this week on the 2004 debates. With the presidency riding on their performances, the stakes couldn't be higher.
"The debates are going to matter a lot," said Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush campaign official. They are "the only real opportunity" for voters to see the candidates "side-by-side, answering questions that are of concern to the public."
Strategists for each side see the candidate forums as a rare chance to move the contest one way or another. A clever line, or a gaffe, could become a defining moment in the final weeks before the election.
An estimated TV audience of 50 million, roughly half the likely electorate, will be seeing Bush and Kerry together in Coral Gables, Fla., for the first time Thursday. Uncommitted voters, whose choices will decide the election, are expected to begin picking a candidate that night.
"Look at what happened to us" in 2000, Dowd said. Bush went into the first debate trailing Al Gore. "Coming out of the debate, we were ahead."
This time, it is Kerry who must come from behind. Polls show Bush with a small, solid lead of about 5 percentage points.
"For Kerry, it's a pivotal point in this campaign. He needs this first debate to change the dynamics of the race," said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant in Boston.
Because initial impressions are often decisive, Thursday night's debate is expected to be the most important of the three presidential encounters. (There will also be one vice presidential debate next month.)
Kerry can't win the election in Thursday's debate, but he can start making himself a more attractive alternative. Merely by standing on the same stage with the president, he will rise in stature, as other challengers have in the past.
Bush, on the other hand, will be trying to reinforce his lead, by reiterating his argument that Kerry would provide weak leadership in a dangerous world.
"You can't lead the war on terror if you wilt or waver when times are tough," Bush told a rally last week, in a likely preview of his debate message.
Both men will spend the next few days rehearsing their lines. Bush will hunker down at his Texas ranch with Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire senator who impersonated Gore in Bush's 2000 prep sessions, playing the role of Kerry.
Kerry will be in Wisconsin, a battleground state where he has fallen behind Bush in the polls. Gregory B. Craig, an attorney on former President Bill Clinton's impeachment defense team, will take on the Bush role.
Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry said the challenger's goal will be to introduce himself to an electorate that has yet to gain a clear impression of him.
Kerry needs to "get people to understand who he is and what his leadership capabilities are [that] he really would lead this country in a different direction ... and finally to convince people that we've got a plan for this country that will make it better off four years from now than it is today," McCurry told reporters. Bush's campaign contends that voters already know Kerry well enough - after six months of Bush attack ads that portray the Massachusetts senator as indecisive.
At this point in the 2000 campaign, $50 million to $60 million in ads had aired before the first debate, according to Bush strategist Dowd. This year, the figure is $450 million, he said.
As a result, getting voters to change their impressions will be "a hurdle now" for Kerry, he added, because the impression that he waffles on key issues "is pretty baked in."
Democratic strategist David Axelrod credits the Bush team with doing a "superb job" of making Kerry look like a "flip-flopper." Still, Axelrod says, Kerry can start to turn the contest around with an effective debate performance.
There are still undecided voters "who can't get past Bush's failure and are holding open their judgments of Kerry, waiting for some sign from him that he can pass their test. And I think these debates give him that opportunity," he said.
The topics of the first debate, foreign policy and homeland security, have dominated the campaign in recent weeks. One of Bush's greatest advantages over Kerry, polls show, is his leadership in the fight against terrorism. But voter surveys also suggest that the war in Iraq has the potential to cut against him.
Kerry will try to get voters to focus on Bush's handling of Iraq, aides said. He will argue, as he has in recent days, that Iraq is a "profound diversion" that has made it harder to win the war on terrorism and has prevented the United States from dealing with problems such as the cost of health care and lost jobs.
"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority," Kerry said Friday.