In lead-up to debate, candidates hone messages

As the first debate on Thursday nears, Bush and Kerry seek to knock each other off kilter.

When President George Bush and Sen. John Kerry square off in Miami on Thursday, each can almost start with this line: "As I was saying ..."

For the past week, each candidate has been laying the rhetorical groundwork for this first of three presidential debates, the focus of which - at the Bush campaign's insistence - will be foreign policy and national security.

President Bush can be expected to lay out a vision of optimism and resoluteness in Iraq, while keeping it firmly identified as a central front in the larger war on terror. Stability and democracy are taking root in Iraq, despite "tough times" there, President Bush will repeat. The January elections will take place, he will assert.

Senator Kerry will press his newly focused argument that the Iraq war is a major diversion from the war on terror, and that Bush has in fact made America less safe. As he has done for the past week, Kerry will seek to keep the spotlight on the past 18 months - on the administration's decision to invade Iraq when it did, and on the occupation.

For Kerry, who trails the president by a handful of points in most opinion polls, Thursday's debate represents his best opportunity of the campaign to turn the tables on Bush.

A gambit - and new risk - for Kerry

"The whole idea is to get your opponent off-message and off-balance," says independent pollster Del Ali. "Kerry spent all of August defending himself on [his Vietnam record] and Iraq. Now he wants Bush to take his lumps. We could go into October dead even."

Knocking Bush off message is a tall order, though, given the president's skill at stating his case simply and clearly, in a way that many voters perceive as showing strength of character. Bush is seen as having won his most important political debates by coolly and relentlessly staying on message. Kerry, less known to voters but seen by analysts as an accomplished debater, will seek to reframe the discussion away from persona and onto the facts as he sees them.

With five weeks until Election Day, Kerry's decision to focus more on foreign policy and less on domestic issues, where he leads in the polls - in some areas by a wide margin - represents a necessary risk, political observers say. If Kerry had let stand Bush's assertion that the war in Iraq was waged as a necessary component of the war on terror, Kerry would have relinquished Iraq as a key wedge issue. The war on terror and homeland security remain Bush's strongest domains.

"It's very clear Bush is wagering his whole presidency on his reputation as being an indispensable commander in chief in the war on terror," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "It's Kerry's challenge to convince people that it's precisely Bush's mismanagement of security policy that is the main reason to fire him."

Recent polling demonstrates Bush's vulnerability on Iraq, where the news has become more grim of late, including the beheadings of two Americans last week. Americans still support the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, 55 percent to 45 percent, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. But in the same poll, only 40 percent of registered voters believe removing Hussein from power was "worth the number of US casualties and financial cost," versus 52 percent who said it was not worth it.

Faced with a skeptical public and a rising casualty toll in Iraq, Bush and his surrogates have sought to deflect blame toward Kerry himself - saying that the Massachusetts Democrat's statements on Iraq can embolden the enemy. Expect such suggestions to come up in the Thursday debate, and if Bush doesn't raise the point, Kerry will, analysts say.

"That could be the confrontational moment," says a senior aide to a Senate Republican. "If I were Kerry, I'd bring it up, just to knock it down. He can challenge Bush, 'Sir, are you questioning my patriotism? Do you really have the standing to do that, you and your vice president?'"

Kerry's weapon: draft

Another moment of sizzle could come if Kerry decides to repeat his allegation that a second Bush term could include a return of the draft. At a campaign appearance on Sept. 22 in West Palm Beach, Fla., Kerry said that he couldn't rule that out.

"Given the way he has gone about this war, and given his avoidance of responsibility on North Korea and Iraq and other places, it is possible," Kerry said.

Bush has stated that a reinstatement of the draft is not needed, but Kerry and other Democrats have already planted the seed - a point that, should Kerry or his surrogates choose to focus on it, could help him win back some of the women who have trickled away from his side in recent weeks.

Bush, of course, could use that moment to show resolve, looking intently into the camera and declaring something along the lines of, "Read my lips, no new draft." But it would be a no-lose gambit for Kerry.

"I would be shocked in the debate if [Kerry] doesn't bring it up," says Mr. Ali, the pollster. If Kerry can drive that point home, he adds, "I guarantee he will have a 15-point lead with women who have teenage kids."

Still, Kerry is likely to use the lion's share of his time less on gotcha moments and more on trying to convince the public that he is a preferable alternative to Bush on a range of security dilemmas - not only Iraq and the war on terror, but also North Korea and Iran. In the past week, he has moved away from merely explaining why he voted with the administration to grant the president authority to invade Iraq to explaining why he believes the president misused that authority.

For Bush, the challenge is to keep the public focused on the big picture - his vision, someday, of a stable, democratic Middle East - and away from the image of danger that American forces face in Iraq daily.

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