CORAL GABLES, Fla. — President Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry Wednesday wrapped up practice sessions for their first debate with each side claiming the other faced the tougher challenge.
Kerry, who has been preparing for the debate at a rural Wisconsin resort, said “the truth” would catch up with Bush during the 90-minute face-to-face encounter at the University of Miami Thursday night.
But Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman predicted Kerry would have a hard time explaining himself to Americans “given his continual vacillation on issue after issue.”
MSNBC.com will air the debate live in a Webcast from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET. The debate also will be broadcast at the same time on NBC and MSNBC Cable.
The positioning by both campaigns underlined the high stakes in the nationally televised debate, which will give as many as 50 million Americans their first chance to judge the two White House candidates side by side on the same stage.
But what they see won't be much of a factor in their decision on whom they'll cast ballots for, many voters said in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll. Forty-one percent say the debates are "not at all important" in their decision-making process, compared with 28 percent in 2000. Just 19 percent say the debates are "extremely important," 12 percent say "quite important" and 28 percent say "just somewhat important."
Asked what each candidate must do in the debate, poll respondents were somewhat split on Kerry's mission, with 27 percent saying he must show "a clear and consistent plan on domestic issues" and 25 percent saying he must show "a clear and consistent position on defense issues such as Iraq and terrorism." Some 37 percent said Bush's chief task is to show that he is willing to "adjust his policies when they are not working."
Video: Debate preparations The debate session will focus on foreign policy and is certain to be dominated by the wars in Iraq and on terror, issues that have been spotlighted in a tight presidential race that most polls show is leaning toward Bush.
In a fund-raising appeal to supporters entitled “I know how much you are counting on me,” Kerry said the debates would force Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to publicly explain their decisions on a host of issues before the Nov. 2 election.
“Bush and Cheney may believe that they can hide their failures and get away without acknowledging their costly mistakes for 34 more days,” the Massachusetts senator said. "But you and I know better. We know that the truth is catching up with them.”
'Forum without a filter'
Kerry campaign adviser Joel Johnson said the debate would be “a forum without a filter,” giving voters an unvarnished opportunity to hear Bush defend his actions in Iraq and on other issues.
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“George Bush is going to have to have an appointment with his own record, which he has avoided nicely in the runup to the debate,” Johnson said, adding Bush cannot avoid “central questions about how we got into this mess and what his plan is to get out.”
In his own e-mail appeal to Bush supporters, Mehlman said the debate would give Kerry “an opening to explain to the American people exactly where he stands. Unfortunately for the senator, that may be difficult given his continual vacillation on issue after issue.”
With many polls showing voters still do not like Kerry and trust Bush more to handle key issues including Iraq, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd told reporters “John Kerry’s task is heavy” and he would have 90 minutes to do what he had not managed in two years of campaigning.
“Kerry has to convince people that he is credible and that he has a plan, and that the American public wants to see him in their living rooms for the next four years,” Dowd said.
Republicans pounced on Kerry’s statement in an ABC interview that he made his frequently lampooned comment about voting for $87 billion to fund the Iraq war before he voted against it because “it was late in the evening” and he was tired.
The comment came during a lunchtime campaign event in March in West Virginia. Kerry, who ultimately voted against the $87 billion, explained to a crowd of veterans that he had voted for the package earlier when it would have been paid for by eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy rather than by increasing the budget deficit.
Republicans, who frequently ridicule Kerry for “looking French,” suggested he might have been confused about the time of day because his watch was set on “Paris time,” where it was evening.
“Better an inarticulate moment than an inarticulate policy,” Kerry spokesman David Wade replied.
Veep hopefuls debate Tuesday
Kerry and Bush head to Florida Wednesday ahead of Thursday night’s debate, the first of three matchups of the two candidates. Cheney and Kerry’s running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, will debate next Tuesday.
Both campaigns worked hard to lower expectations about the performance of their candidates, who have long and successful debate track records and have been prepping for the session for days.
Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry acknowledged Bush was a disciplined and effective debater with a likable personality, but said “this is not a personality contest. We’re not electing a class president or head cheerleader.”
“At the urgent moment when America is at war and people are quite anxious about the wrong direction we are headed here at home, I think they want more substantive answers from these candidates about where America is going to head in the future,” McCurry said.
Reuters contributed to this report.