Bush And Kerry To Square Off Thursday In Strictly Formatted Debate

Iraq policy the likely focus of University of Miami meet.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

After six months of firing long-distance spitballs at one another across battleground state lines, President George W. Bush and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts finally go at it face to face this week.

The two, who have only met a handful of times, square off in the first of three scheduled debates Thursday night on the campus of the University of Miami at 9 p.m. ET.


Tune in to the first of three presidential debates Thursday night (September 30) at 9 p.m. ET on CBS. Then give us your two cents in You Tell Us, take our poll and check our instant analysis of the big event.

The anticipation leading up to the debates is palpable. Not only has this year's campaign trail been littered with personal jabs from the candidates and various political groups, both candidates have excellent debate skills even though their campaigns try to play them down. But while the stage is set and the stakes are high, it remains to be seen whether we'll be treated to a real view of the candidates and their contrasting opinions or whether we'll hear two campaign stump speakers talking right past each other.

Debates have provided plenty of defining moments in campaigns past, and have even jolted public opinion, reshaping races just weeks before the election. But the rules set for debates this time around may prove strict enough to stifle any real debate. Mostly, one candidate will offer his stand on an issue in a scripted mini-speech. Then his opponent will offer an equally scripted rebuttal. Should time expire during one of these statements, a yellow light will be illuminated for viewers at home to see. Candidates are also forbidden to directly pose a question to the other candidate during the course of the debate.

In the negotiations leading up to the debates, the Bush team insisted on the tightly regulated format. The Kerry camp, running five to 10 points behind in national polls, was just grateful to get three shots at debating the president on prime time, rather than two or even none, so they signed on.

Even after all the hype and anticipation, these joint exercises are often as much about personality as they are policy. And as easy as it may be to blame the campaigns or the media for that, polling has shown that a candidate's "likability" is important to voters.

So as you read this, the two candidates are probably rehearsing humorous, self-deprecating sound bites that allow them to seem more likeable, along with barking sharply worded attacks at their debate-prep buddies (often members of the campaign staff or other lawmakers) meant to inflict maximum damage on their opponent.

So what will they talk about for an hour and a half? Well, Bush-Kerry Debate I will be devoted to foreign policy issues.

Expect the conflict in Iraq to take center stage. Kerry has charged that Bush deceived the country about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein when he said the Iraqi leader possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons have been found there to date. The senator's case was bolstered Monday with the release of a previously classified briefing prepared for the president by an advisory panel known as the National Intelligence Council in January 2003, two months before war began. The memo warned that U.S. troops would face a hostile environment in Iraq even after they secured general control of the country. That report is almost sure to come up.

Kerry has also blasted Bush for sugarcoating the current situation in Iraq for political gain. Things are getting worse, not better, Kerry argues, pointing out that September has been one of the bloodiest months for U.S. forces since the occupation began.

The president will come back by defending the foray into Iraq in several ways. He'll argue the situation on the ground is better than the media have reported. He'll say Iraq has become the front line in the war on terror and that it's better the attacks come on our well-armed and well-trained troops there than on unprepared civilians here at home. On the WMDs, the president will likely repeat the oft-used argument that it's always better to be safe than sorry instead of "taking the word of a madman."

But Bush will be on the offensive too, trying to paint Kerry as a mealy-mouthed flip-flopper on Iraq — voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq and later voting against an $87 billion aid package for U.S. forces there. Keep an ear out for an "any way the wind blows" wind-surfing analogy.

Republicans also have a new line of attack that may surface, claiming Kerry's criticism of the war undermines the efforts of U.S. troops. By publicly offering a plan to get out of Iraq, they claim Kerry has given insurgents in Iraq hope that they will succeed.

If Bush levels this charge, Kerry will almost certainly fire back with an indignant (albeit well-rehearsed) zinger reminding viewers that he actually fought for his country in Vietnam before efforts to stop the war after he returned home.

So tune in for all the action, then join us online at Choose or Lose as we continue the debate.