Bush doesnt try for 1992 presidency
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|George H.W. Bush lost points by appearing distracted and indifferent while glancing at his watch.|
Posted on Sat, Sep. 25, 2004
Debaters work for an edge
BY WILLIAM E. GIBSON
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - (KRT) - At last, after months of wrangling and more than $400 million of advertising, George W. Bush and John F. Kerry will go head to head on the same stage this week, facing hard questions about where they would lead the nation for the next four years.
The setting for the first presidential debate of 2004 is entirely apt: South Florida, where the last election was decided and some of the most intense campaigning will take place before Election Day.
Thursday's encounter, starting at 9 p.m. EDT at the University of Miami, will fittingly focus on homeland security and foreign policy as the first presidential debate since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rarely have debates dramatically changed a campaign, but this election promises to be so close and the stakes are so high that a telling performance or a damaging gaffe could tip the outcome and determine the course of the country. An estimated 50 million television viewers, including undecided voters, will watch.
"It's a very big deal. This is the premiere moment of the campaign, this first debate," said Alexander P. Lamis, professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University, site of the vice presidential candidates' debate on Oct. 5. "A lot of people just don't pay that much attention to politics, so this is an opportunity to penetrate that veil of indifference."
The Miami debate also will be watched around the world by those looking for signals about the future course of a superpower that has been deeply wounded and remains obsessed with its own security.
"Through history, there haven't been too many elections take place in wartime. And the amount of animosity generated on both sides of the campaign is higher than in the past," noted Barbara Kellerman, research director at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University. "So one could argue that this one has more importance, and the level of interest has ratcheted up.
"Nobody doubts that Kerry will come across as reasonably intelligent, and there is no doubt that President Bush will be resolute. What people will be looking for are not signs of competence but rather mistakes. The question is: will anyone make a mistake that his opponent can seize upon and carry into the campaign."
Another question is: how many minds can still be changed - and will this year's round of three debates sway the relatively small numbers of wavering voters.
The electorate was virtually deadlocked, about equally split between Bush and Kerry, until last month when the president opened up a clear lead in most polls only to see it shrink again. The latest polls indicate some volatility, the possibility that the election could be determined by a major event, such as the debates, a shift in the economy or a new development in Iraq.
Bush strategists say that the president now leads Kerry by 4 to 6 percentage points nationwide and that the debates, especially the first one, give the challenger his best shot.
"I think it's still very close, and the debates are going to matter a lot, especially for Kerry, because he's got to get the race back to the point it was before the convention," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign.
"Debates do matter. Look at what happened to us. We were behind in 2000 going into the debates, and when we came out of the (first) debate we were ahead," Dowd said. Bush later lost that lead in 2000, but emerged from the debates unscathed.
Neither candidate is known for brilliant oratory or debating skills. Bush, prone to mangled syntax and rhetorical goofs, has fared well in past debates mostly by exceeding expectations and by connecting with voters through his drawling, regular-guy demeanor. Kerry, prone to a stiff lecturing style similar to that of former Democratic candidate Al Gore, nevertheless has proved a tough debater toward the end of past senatorial campaigns.
"He (Kerry) should be very aggressive," advised Alan Medoff, a computer consultant in Wellington who came to a Kerry rally in West Palm Beach. "I think he should hit Bush over the head again and again and again with fact."
A command of facts may not be the most important weapon in the debate, Bush strategists believe. They hope to foster a sense of the president's strong leadership, partly through force of personality.
"People don't look at debates as academic exercises," Dowd said. "It's not like, `Oh, he has this information, he has that information.' It's primarily visceral reactions to the candidates. Who is this person? Is he the kind of leader I want? Do I want him in my living room for the next four years?"
Personality and image-making have long dominated televised presidential debates, starting with the famous 1960 clash between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which changed the course of that campaign and of history.
Polls at the time found that most people who listened to the debate on radio - a big audience in 1960 - were convinced that Nixon had won. Yet most who watched it on television believed Kennedy had won.
Kennedy projected youth, vigor, poise and charm. Nixon, beset by a "lazy-shave" powder that streaked down his face under the hot television lights, looked nervous and shifty-eyed.
In one key 1992 debate, Bill Clinton made points by walking up to a questioner, microphone in hand, to show empathy for those struggling in the economic doldrums. George H.W. Bush lost points by appearing distracted and indifferent while glancing at his watch.
In the first debate of the last campaign, a nationwide audience was primed to see Gore, a policy wonk, overwhelm George W. Bush, never known for smooth articulation or a mastery of details. But Gore came on too strong, looked overbearing and could be heard sighing. The lasting impression was that Bush at least held his ground.
Thursday's debate will unfold in hurricane-wracked Florida, where many residents are still struggling to put their daily lives back to normal.
The setting may well inspire moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS to ask questions about immigration pressures, devastation in Haiti, trade policy in the Americas or the U.S. embargo of Cuba - all foreign policy issues of local interest.
The candidates also could seize the opportunity to speak directly to hurricane victims, immigrant voters and others in Florida, the largest swing state with 27 electoral votes.
Waiting outside will be independent candidate Ralph Nader and supporters who plan to protest his exclusion from the debate. Thursday may be the last time all three candidates appear in the state at the same time.
(South Florida Sun-Sentinel correspondent Rafael Lorente contributed to this report.)
© 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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