Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has ever lost a debate, or so the legend goes.
In fact, observers of presidential debates like to point out, neither has lost a debate in a head-to-head matchup. During primaries, on a crowded debate stage, both have been edged out by verbally gifted rivals (see Republican Alan Keyes and Democrat John Edwards). But no matter now, as the principal candidates in the Nov. 2 elections suit up for their first head-to-head matchup on Thursday evening at the University of Miami.
President Bush takes the stage with a decided edge. National polls show him beating the Massachusetts senator, with voters echoing the Bush campaign mantra that Kerry doesn't have a clear vision for the country. This debate, likely to be the most-watched of three duels over the next two weeks, represents Kerry's best chance to alter the dynamics of the race, unforeseen events notwithstanding. Still, Bush is not home free. He, too, has work to do in Coral Gables, Fla.
"Kerry still has to prove himself as an effective foreign-policy leader, but Bush has this albatross-like thing called Iraq to worry about," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University.
In the runup to Thursday's debate, much has been made of the detailed agreement struck by the Bush and Kerry teams, governing such minutiae as the distance between podiums (meant to deemphasize Kerry's height advantage), the visibility of timing lights (meant to embarrass the long-winded Kerry), and what cameras may and may not show as each man speaks.
Since the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, the first such televised matchup perceived as playing a decisive role in electing a president, campaigns have grown increasingly obsessed with any small element that could be spun to devastating effect - such as the first President Bush being caught on camera looking at his watch during a debate with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992, and Vice President Al Gore sighing audibly during his first debate with then-Texas Gov. George Bush in 2000.
Still, as much as commentators and the campaigns themselves like to sweat the small stuff and opine on style - simplicity vs. nuance, folksiness vs. patrician bearing - this is a debate where words will be just as critical. Embedded in the good-news polling for Bush lie warning signs. The latest Pew Research Center survey, released Tuesday, shows fewer voters favoring Bush over Kerry on Iraq than two weeks ago, and 60 percent of the public rating the economy as only fair or poor.
"The poll finds that Bush's gains in support are being driven more by perceptions of Kerry's weakness - especially on leadership and other personal traits - than by improved opinions of Bush," writes Pew center director Andrew Kohut.
The latest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll shows Bush's 45 percent to 42 percent lead over Kerry last week (with 2 percent for Ralph Nader) back to a dead heat - 45 percent each, and again 2 percent for Mr. Nader.
"The major charge for Kerry in this environment is to make himself the acceptable alternative," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "He has to provide people with a comfort level that he knows where he's going, that he can be a strong leader, and that he can lead us in the war on terror."
Professor White sees a parallel in the election of 1980, when Ronald Reagan challenged then-President Jimmy Carter. The race was close until the end, as voters withheld judgment on Mr. Reagan's suitability for the presidency. It was his debate with Carter that provided that reassurance.
Kerry's tall order
But with the nation at war, Kerry perhaps faces a steeper climb than Reagan did in the effort to oust a sitting commander in chief. For Kerry, too, the burden is to persuade the public to throw out a sitting president.
"Kerry has to convince Americans that he's presidential material," says Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University. "He's got to define his positions; he's got to reassure Americans; he's got to provide a sense of direction; and of course he's got to show that he's approachable ... not an aloof politician."
So much has been made of each man's debating prowess - Kerry more in the classically trained manner, Bush in his less orthodox, simple-and-on-message style - that for once the quadrennial expectations game seems to have been defused. Each campaign seems to have dueled that point to a draw. In fact, perhaps for the first time in his life, Bush may be going into a debate with some polls showing the public expects him to win.
Garry Mauro, the Democrat who opposed Bush for the Texas governorship in 1998, says the Kerry team should expect no surprises from the president.
"President Bush will be totally focused," Mr. Mauro said last weekend on "Fox News Sunday." "He will be talking directly to the American people. He will be using the same themes he's practiced over and over and over again."
Kerry will show a high degree of discipline, too, says former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Kerry from the US Senate.
"He's one of the most articulate people in public life, if not the most," said Mr. Weld, also on Fox. As for Kerry's weaknesses, Weld responded: "Some of the answers could perhaps be shorter."
New poll (Sept. 22-27)
Prior poll (Sept. 14-18)
Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll. Margin of error 4 percent.
• Votes for Ralph Nader are not included.