Officials Prepare For First Presidential Debate
Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
Debate organizers put finishing touches on the presidential debate stage at the University of Miami Convocation Center at the University of Miami September 29, 2004 in Coral Gables, Florida.
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updated 9/30/2004 4:18:11 PM ET 2004-09-30T20:18:11

The first presidential debate of this general election is coming up and both campaigns have long been finished with the preparations. Candidates are getting rest, focusing on key themes, and getting revved up for the showdown.

With the hours ticking down to the presidential debate, both campaigns say the intense practice and strategy sessions are over.

According to veterans of this grueling process, this is the time when the candidates simply try to stay relaxed and focused. "It's an hour and a half on national television, not looking at your wrist watch hopefully, knowing that your slightest misstatement could be spun by the other side," says Republican Stragetist Frank Donatelli. "It really requires a level, a tremendous level of concentration.”

For the last several weeks, President Bush and John Kerry have both reviewed videotapes of the other, and have conducted debate practice sessions with live stand-ins. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg pretended to be John Kerry, while former Clinton lawyer Greg Craig took on the role of President Bush.

The aggressive exercise is supposed to sharpen and discipline each candidate’s response. The practice sessions are also intended to eliminate certain words or phrases. “When you are talking about social security, you never talk about 'privatizing' social security, you talk about 'strengthening' social security,” says Donatelli.

“You don’t call the president 'a liar,'" says Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. "'To a lot of people that seems very harsh and over the top.  But you can suggest the president doesn’t tell the truth about important facts, fudges facts, or hides them.”

By now, both President Bush and John Kerry may be ready with their one-liners— if the opening presents itself.

The candidates will go into the debate with an over-all message that ties everything together. “A framing statement, a positioning statement, something that he’s comfortable returning to again and again that defines the difference in this race,” says McMahon.

After Watergate, Carter said he would never lie.After Carter, Reagan hit hard on the economy with his famous line, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

For this debate, foreign policy will be center stage.  The question is, will either candidate connect in the way that their campaigns are counting on?

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