WASHINGTON Because John Kerry is the challenger and lags President Bush in most national polls, he seems to have the most to gain from a strong performance in the upcoming fall debates. Some Democrats see the faceoffs as the last chance for a Kerry breakout.
But presidential debates present pitfalls as well as opportunities.
Unscripted moments and gaffes can backfire on incumbent and challenger alike: Al Gore's heavy sighs in 2000, the first President Bush's checking of his watch in 1992, Michael Dukakis' passionless answer to a question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife in 1988, President Ford's 13-year-early liberation of Poland from Soviet domination in 1976.
Barring any major developments in Iraq or on the terrorism or economic fronts, the debates could be even more important than usual this year because of the potential impact on undecided voters. There aren't many of them left and the race is close.
In a poll by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of those surveyed said the debates would matter in deciding how they would vote. Some 68 percent said their minds were already made up.
This year's debates ''in totality are more important than the two conventions,'' said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
''You could not go through the 2000 election without understanding that the debates matter. Al Gore went from a five-point lead prior to the debates to being five points behind after the debates,'' Greenberg said.
The candidates' differences also are more clearly pronounced this year than usual on major issues that divide the country: Iraq, job losses, rising health care costs and the mushrooming federal deficit.
''It will be one of the few times when George Bush will have to defend his record,'' said Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary to President Clinton. ''He's proved very deft at slipping and sliding when it comes to his own record.''
But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato suggests that Bush will have one big advantage in that ''he's constantly underestimated. This is where the intense dislike for Bush among Democrats backfires on them. They insist that he's dumb as a post, and when he demonstrates he's not, he wins.''
Negotiations were continuing into the weekend between the Bush and Kerry camps over terms of the debates. The first one recommended by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates is set for Sept. 30 at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The panel has recommended two additional presidential debates Oct. 8 in St. Louis and Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz and an Oct. 5 vice presidential debate in Cleveland.
The Kerry campaign has agreed to all four; the Bush campaign has been noncommittal. President Clinton in 1996 agreed to only two debates in his race against Republican Bob Dole, and many expect Bush to follow the same route most likely sidestepping the proposed second debate at Washington University in St. Louis, with its proposed town-hall format in which undecided voters pose questions.
Wayne Fields, a professor at Washington University who specializes in presidential rhetoric, said a format with undecided voters could be tougher on Bush, particularly in defending his Iraq policy.
It's one thing for a moderator to ask about rising U.S. casualties, ''but if the question comes from somebody who has a son or daughter, husband or wife in Iraq, it personalizes the question for the viewing audience,'' he said.
Bush advisers also are mindful of Bush's father's 1992 ''town hall'' debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot at the University of Richmond. The elder Bush stumbled over a question about whether any of his friends had suffered during the 1991 recession, then glanced at his watch an enduring image that made him look flustered and anxious for things to end.
But it isn't a given that Kerry would perform any better than Bush in such a format.
Kerry's saying he had voted for $87 billion to help pay Iraq war costs ''before I voted against it,'' a remark that the Republicans turned into an anti-Kerry ad, came in response to a question from the audience at a town hall-style meeting.
''Kerry needs to speak to voters in plain simple English and he needs to get on message, and not sound like he's giving a seminar at Harvard,'' said Penn State political scientist Stephen J. Cimbala. ''Bush has the ability to stay on message with a simple and direct and repetitive message.''
The debates could be particularly crucial in 10 or so closely contested states that both parties identify as battlegrounds. New Hampshire is one of those, and Tom Rath, state Republican national committeeman, said he expects state TV viewers to pay particularly close attention.
''Given our involvement in the presidential process, this is one of the most sophisticated electorates in the country. And they wait a long time to make up their minds,'' Rath said.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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