msnbc.com news services
updated 9/27/2004 9:03:34 PM ET 2004-09-28T01:03:34

President Bush said Monday his Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry had shifted his positions on Iraq so many times he could “debate himself” at the prime-time face-off between the two candidates in three days.

And Kerry accused the president of “still trying to hide” from voters the extent of what remains to be done in Iraq.

As both sides maneuvered for advantage ahead of Thursday’s lead-off debate, voters can expect their first chance to directly compare the White House candidates and Kerry will get perhaps his last chance to convince Americans he is up to the job.

After nearly two years of political skirmishing, the side-by-side appearances by Bush and Kerry in three 90-minute nationally televised encounters — Thursday's begins at 9 p.m. ET — have the potential to tip a White House race that polls show is close but leaning to Bush.

Video: Russert: Winning the debate Polls also show voters have plenty of concerns about both candidates. While a majority of voters in most polls are worried about the direction of the country under Republican Bush, particularly in Iraq and on the economy, they remain unconvinced Democrat Kerry is the answer.

If the Massachusetts senator is not successful during the debates in erasing lingering doubts about whether he can be a credible alternative to Bush, he will have little hope of doing it before the Nov. 2 election.

“This is Kerry’s last chance to make a first impression — he is still an amorphous figure in a lot of minds,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has written a history of presidential debates.

“Presidential debates can wipe the slate clean — they usher in the last act of the campaign. They are the last big things that happen before the vote is taken, and in a close race like this they will be crucial,” he said.

Video: Finely tuned rules The television audience will be the largest of the campaign, giving both candidates their best opportunity to court voters who are undecided or might change their minds based on the debates — as much as one-quarter of the electorate, according to some polls.

“An undecided voter at this stage is someone who knows they don’t like the direction Bush is going but is unsure about Kerry, which is why the debates are more critical for Kerry,” said Democratic consultant Doug Hattaway, an aide to Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

“The most important thing for Kerry is not to treat it like a debate contest where he gets points for being smart on all the issues and getting jabs in,” Hattaway said. “He needs to understand that people need to see what kind of person he is and whether he is confident and strong and credible.”

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Coral Gables, Fla., venue
The first debate on Thursday in Coral Gables, Florida, will focus on Iraq and the war on terror — issues that have dominated the campaign for most of the year and that Kerry has put at the top of his agenda in the last month.

“Getting people to look at these two side by side as potential commanders-in-chief is a real part of what we’re going to be doing at that first debate,” Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Bush, meanwhile, will frequently remind viewers and Kerry that he already is the commander-in-chief. While Kerry hopes to trip up Bush and get him off script, the president will aim to stick to his direct campaign message.

Disciplined debater
“Bush will not be tempted to engage in a debate that will impress Washington insiders or debate coaches or the press corps,” said Garry Mauro, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who lost his race for governor against Bush in 1998. “He will talk to the American people and he will be as disciplined as any debater you have ever seen.”

Video: The great debate While presidential debates have rarely been decisive, they can switch momentum or change perceptions. Gore was leading in the polls in 2000 until his loud sighs and supposed misstatements in the first debate became a campaign focus.

“The only way to win a presidential debate is for your opponent to do something dumb,” said Republican consultant Dan Schnur. “Kerry is going to try for fireworks and Bush is going to give his stump speech. But the more aggressive Kerry gets, the riskier it gets for him.”

The post-debate spin also could be important. Both sides will pounce on any mistakes to fill out the negative picture they have painted of their opponents — that Kerry is a flip-flopper, or Bush is out of touch and not in command of the facts.

“The Republicans will be on a hair trigger to pounce on Kerry for anything where it looks like he has nuanced a position. That’s the trap they are waiting to spring,” Hattaway said. On the other hand, Schnur said, “the Democrats will try to catch Bush in a policy misstatement and then blow it out of proportion.”

Both sides have worked feverishly to lower expectations, although Bush and Kerry have long and successful debate histories. Bush performed well against Gore and in his Texas governor’s races.

Kerry, a member of his prep school debate team and a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, came from behind to win re-election in 1996 after a series of eight memorable debates in Massachusetts with Republican Gov. William Weld.

“Senator Kerry has spent his lifetime preparing for these debates, 20 years in the United States Senate, where you debate,” said Bush adviser Karen Hughes. “As president you don’t debate. You listen, you make decisions, but you don’t engage in debates.”

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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