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Debate checklists for Kerry and Bush

What does each candidate have to do, or avoid doing in next week's first presidential debate? Howard Fineman has the answers.
John Kerry Campaigns In Florida And Ohio
Kerry's job in the first debate is to be clear, concise and consistent, writes Howard Fineman.Chris Hondros / Getty Images

At a rally here, President Bush was in fighting trim: spirited, focused and rhetorically flub-free. His much-practiced and oft-repeated applause lines were well-chosen and confidently delivered, clearly spelling out his domestic priorities for a second term. It was a state-of-the art campaign event.

But now comes the hard part: the debates — or, more particularly, the debate. Karen Hughes and Condi Rice, the president's two "mother hens" on foreign policy and language, were on the trip but out of view. When Bush finished on the stage at the Valley Forge Convention Center, I'm told, he spent more than an hour in a holding room working on debate prep before leaving for his next stop.

It's no exaggeration to say that the first presidential debate, to be held next Thursday night at the University of Miami, will be the key moment of the campaign. If Bush doesn't blow it, the race may be over. If he screws up — if he loses big time to Sen. John Kerry — Election Day may be another long night, week, or month.

Nothing much is going to happen on the campaign trail between now and the moment the moderator, Jim Lehrer, asks his first question in Florida. A Bush adviser tells me his boss this weekend will hunker down for prep; Kerry will do the same thing. And with good reason: all networks will broadcast live (as will cable). The audience will be by far the largest and most important of the campaign. The topic is the pivotal one in this year, foreign policy. And since presidential politics is, above all, a game of comparison, this is the ultimate chance for voters to examine the candidates side by side.

What does each candidate have to do, or avoid doing? Kerry, as the challenger and leader of a rather muddled campaign so far, has the more complex task. But Bush can't just win by showing up. Here is a to-do-and-don't-do list:


  • Be real. Presidential campaigns aren't mere personality contests, but they do resemble a race for class president more than one for head of the honor society. Brains matter, but likeability matters more.
  • Be straightforward, concise. This isn't easy for a man given to nuance and prolixity. But there is no room for ambiguity here. Kerry has to speak from the heart, and clearly. He has to realize that he isn't running for secretary of state in the 19th century, but president in the 21st.
  • Attack, but calmly and respectfully. Many Democrats loathe the mere sight of George Bush, viewing him as an incompetent, reckless fantasist who would be a joke if he weren't such a menace. If Kerry thinks that — and he probably does — he can't let that contempt show. It might feel good but look unpleasant on the air. I am told that Bush will try, in the words of one adviser, to "get under Kerry's skin, which should be pretty easy to do." Kerry can't let him.
  • Establish a critique and stick to it. This is not college debate, or a case in civil court, where you can win with a kitchen sink strategy of making every argument, even contradictory ones. In fact, the "debate" isn't really a debate at all, but rather a theater of parallel press conferences. Kerry has to paint a portrait of Bush using the same colors and themes in every answer. Is Bush a liar or a reckless gambler or self-delusional or tragically simplistic or just plain incompetent? Kerry has to pick one line of attack and sell it every time.
  • Critique Iraq but not freedom. Americans don't believe in Metternich and Kissinger, they believe in the perhaps naïve but inspiring spirit of Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan — in the idea that freedom is not only good for the planet but the birthright of all its inhabitants. We don't always honor these ideals but Kerry can't dismiss them. He has to argue that he would be a better, more effective champion of them.
  • Decide, once and for all, whether he would have gone to war in Iraq and whether Bush's decision was right, however nightmarish the situation is there now. I thought he had finally achieved clarity on this — that it was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place — but he keeps saying that ousting Saddam was a good thing, even though he says that we are less safe for having gone to war to do so.
  • Future, future, future. Kerry has yet to convincingly explain what his presidency would be about other than the absence of Bush and more and more earnest meetings of nations "at the table." Kerry always talks about "bringing people to the table." Enough about the table. His slogan is "stronger at home, respected in the world." He has lots of policy proposals for the former and puts his own person forth as the reason why we will achieve the latter. But Kerry has to summarize, clearly and convincingly, how he'll get us there.


  • Be Humble. If "the sigh" killed Al Gore in 2000, the "smirk" could damage Bush in 2004. Voter/viewers know the look: impatient, condescending, exasperated. The president can't afford to look that way, in response to either Lehrer or Kerry. And humility has its substantive side, too. Bush can't maintain that there are no problems in Iraq; he can't argue that the situation there isn't dicey. He has to argue that he went there for noble motives and for at least one good result — the ouster of Saddam Hussein. He has to convey a sense of pride in having done so, but without being strident or defensive.
  • Be careful about the Guard. Bush can't dismiss all the questions that have arisen, and that will surely arise during the debate, and he can't yield to the temptation to blame it all on CBS. But he does have to settle on one clear explanation for why he didn't take his physical in 1972, since various aides and biographies have mentioned several different reasons.
  • Honor Kerry's service, and look like he means it. The Swifties have attacked and hard, and there is no gainsaying that they have had an effect or that the Republicans (and BC04) were delighted with the result. Bush has to defend the Swifties' right to speak, even as he says — and should say with conviction — that Kerry served with distinction. Then Bush has to say that the real issue isn't what happened back then, but who has the fortitude to make the tough call now.
  • Choose a message about Kerry, but be careful. Judging from its latest ad, BC04 seems to have settled on one: that Kerry's sometimes shifting positions add up not to political cleverness but to a dangerous weakness of character. But Bush can't argue in so many words that Kerry is unfit for office. That is for the voters to decide. And whatever he says, he has to be respectful. Many Bush voters view Kerry as a craven, say-anything creation of Washington and the U.N. who will cave in to terrorists at a moment's notice. Bush may or may not agree with that view — my sense is that he doesn't give a hoot about what Kerry really thinks or is — but he can't look contemptuous.
  • Avoid a "Pants Down" moment. That's what one prominent Washingtonian tells me he's longing for, and fully expects to see: Bush behaving like Gerry Ford, who infamously declared in 1976 that Poland wasn't under Soviet domination, which, at the time, it certainly was. If such a moment arrives, it could be verbal or visual. A president and commander-in-chief can't afford to look like a deer in the headlights.