Bush and Kerry face off tonight in 1st televised debate

Lehrer questions to focus on Iraq war, U.S. security

Issues of leadership, likability

For Democrat, a chance to better define himself

Election 2004

September 30, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The longest presidential campaign in history enters a potentially decisive phase tonight, when President Bush and Sen. John Kerry meet at 9 p.m. in the first of three televised debates.

National polls show Bush with a widening lead over the Massachusetts Democrat, with Election Day less than five weeks away. Kerry's burden this evening will be to change the direction of the contest by giving voters a sharper picture of where he would lead the country.

It's important for Kerry "to perform well, because he's got the most to clear up," said presidential scholar Charles O. Jones. "Bush is, after all, the incumbent, and I think most people have a pretty good sense of who he is and how he performs."

Foreign policy and homeland security will be the topics of questions posed by moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS. The 90-minute event on the University of Miami campus will be the first general election debate of the television age held in a time of war. Presidential nominees did not meet in debates during the Vietnam era.

Bush, as commander in chief and a Republican, enjoys built-in advantages, historically, on national security matters. Those edges have yet to be dulled by the worsening insurgency in Iraq or by Kerry's stepped-up criticism of the president's management of the conflict.

Terrorism and the Iraq war, top concerns of voters in surveys, are among Bush's greatest strengths as a candidate. While most voters now say they believe the war wasn't worth fighting, they believe it has contributed to the nation's long-term security, according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll.

The president enters the debate with a lopsided lead over Kerry on security questions. When Americans are asked who they trust to do a better job of handling Iraq and the U.S. campaign against terror, they favor Bush by a wide margin. He is also strongly preferred when voters are asked which candidate is a firm leader and takes clearer stands on issues.

`Image weakness'

One of the Bush campaign's successes has been to keep the focus on the challenger's capabilities. History suggests that elections are more typically a referendum on the incumbent.

But Kerry is still laboring to convince voters that he'd provide steady leadership on national security, a perennial problem for Democratic candidates. The Boston convention, which stressed his background as a combat veteran in Vietnam, briefly helped Kerry narrow the gap on that issue.

Relentless attacks on Kerry's credibility by Bush and by anti-Kerry veterans have hurt the senator, erasing the progress he made on national security since the start of the general election race in March. The most recent Pew Research Center poll found that Bush's expanding lead over Kerry is driven largely by the Democrat's "image weakness," especially on leadership and other personal traits.

The president is expected to attack Kerry tonight as indecisive, particularly on Iraq. The senator voted to give Bush the authority to invade, but later voted against an $87 billion measure to help pay for the war and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the eve of the debate, Kerry stumbled again over his comment in March, much ridiculed by Bush, that he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. Yesterday on ABC's Good Morning America, the senator called it "one of those inarticulate moments late in the evening when I was dead tired." In fact, the remark came at a lunchtime rally in West Virginia.

Defining Kerry

Kerry aides say they want voters to understand, when the debate ends, that Kerry has a coherent plan for Iraq and the war on terror. As both sides worked to manage expectations to their candidate's benefit, Bush adviser Karen Hughes predicted: "At the end of the debate, [voters] will know where George Bush stands and that may not be the case with Senator Kerry."

In recent days, Kerry has called Iraq a diversion from the war on terrorism, while maintaining that he has been consistent in criticizing Bush for mismanaging the war.

Tonight, the senator will face the largest audience of his life - 50 million people, by the Bush campaign's estimate. Many still have only a dim idea of who Kerry is, what he stands for and whether he can be trusted with the nation's highest office.

"We have to fill in a blank, first and foremost, that Kerry would win the war on terror. And that's a prerequisite to any other argument on foreign policy," said Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry campaign adviser. "You have to demonstrate first that you'd be a tough commander in chief."

Kerry might try to turn the tables on Bush, by arguing that the president has offered shifting explanations for the Iraq war. A new attack ad, released by the Kerry team yesterday, notes the failure to find weapons of mass destruction or evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaida. Against the background of mounting American deaths in Iraq, the ad says: "It's time [Bush] tells us how he's going to fix it."

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