Stakes are high as rivals ready for round two

Bush seeks a clean slate as Kerry works to build on success in first debate

`Starting to draw conclusions'

Election 2004

October 08, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For President Bush, perhaps the best thing he could take from his debate last week with Democratic challenger John Kerry was that there would be two more chances.

This evening, when Bush and Kerry meet in St. Louis for their second face-to-face encounter, the president has a chance to wipe away memories of their first meeting in Miami, where he grimaced and scowled repeatedly on national television. With even Bush's boosters giving the president's performance mediocre grades, polls have shown Kerry tightening the race since then.

Tonight's town-hall format, in which voters will ask the questions, could play to Bush's advantage. While both men have appeared in similar settings before, the famously folksy Bush can appear especially at ease when interacting with ordinary Americans.

After a disappointing first debate, the president also has ample room to improve tonight. Merely avoiding looking annoyed could garner positive reviews, while Kerry faces the challenge of repeating a performance in Miami that was generally well-regarded.

But the risks are also high for the president, several political analysts said, because two poor debate performances in a row could be devastating in a campaign with a mere 25 days left.

"Americans are willing to write off one bad debate as nerves or stress," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But if Bush has a similar performance, he's in serious trouble. People now are starting to draw conclusions, as opposed to just impressions."

While the town hall format favors Bush, Light said, the president cannot "affable himself out of" tough questions on Iraq. "And the questions will be coming from a human audience," Light added. "The town hall debate has a particularly powerful effect on undecided voters. Television viewers identify with the questioners."

Aides to Kerry - trying to raise expectations for Bush in the hope he would fail to reach them - said they are bracing for a more polished president, who will mind his facial expressions.

"Which president will show up?" asked Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser. "What we expect is that he will learn from the last debate, and come out a new person."

Stakes are high for both men. Polls show the two in a virtual dead heat, and voter interest is high. More than 62 million Americans watched the candidates face off in Florida for the first debate. Bush campaign officials suggested viewership could be down tonight, but not by much.

The president also must be prepared for tough questions after a week of bad news for the White House.

First, L. Paul Bremer III, the former civilian administrator for Iraq, said the Pentagon failed to provide enough troops to secure the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. And then, a new CIA report declared that Hussein had not possessed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for more than a decade, undercutting Bush's primary justification to take the nation into a costly war.

Kerry attacked Bush yesterday for maintaining that the decision to go to war in Iraq was justified in wake of the report from the CIA's Charles A. Duelfer, the administration's top weapons inspector in Iraq.

"You don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact," Kerry said.

In a possible preview of sparring on Iraq in St. Louis, Bush returned fire at Kerry during a campaign stop in Wisconsin. "He now claims that I somehow misled America about weapons," Bush said, "when he himself cited the same intelligence about Saddam's weapons as the reason he voted to go to war."

Analysts agree Kerry faces no easy task tonight. While he was effective in Miami, they said, much of his advantage came from Bush's miscues.

George Edwards, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, said the president can eliminate much of Kerry's edge by simply "having a little more self-control over his person."

While the new weapons report and Bremer's comments have placed a burden on Bush to come up with articulate responses, Edwards said, Kerry has to be careful when he raises those issues.

"Kerry is constrained because he had said, there is a threat and I would have invaded," Edwards said. "That puts him in a box, because his response must be nuanced." Edwards added that the senator should use this evening to respond to charges from Bush that he is undermining the troops whenever he attacks the president on Iraq.

Tonight, voters will have their first chance to see Bush and Kerry spar over domestic policy. The first debate was devoted exclusively to foreign affairs. This evening is supposed to be split between issues at home and abroad. The final debate next Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz., will focus on domestic policy.

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