After Tuesday night's vice presidential debate - in which both Dick Cheney and John Edwards held their own and satisfied their partisans - the spotlight shifts back to the main show: the Republican who wants four more years as president and the Democrat who wants to replace him.
Even if Vice President Cheney had turned in a superhuman performance, he could not have fully compensated for President Bush's performance last week, which Republicans acknowledge was subpar. People vote for the top of the ticket, not vice president, and Mr. Bush now has to help himself, analysts say.
But at least Cheney advanced the story line, speaking fluidly and with a tone of authority - if not charismatically. Senator Edwards, too, solidified the rationale for his ticket, and set the table for John Kerry's return engagement with the president in a town-hall-style debate Friday in St. Louis.
"Cheney stopped the movement away from Bush, but it doesn't look like he reversed it," says Republican analyst Frank Luntz, who called the duel a draw. Mr. Luntz hosted a debate-night focus group of 20 swing voters - 12 leaning for Bush and eight leaning for Senator Kerry - and by evening's end, no one had budged.
On Tuesday, each candidate did what he needed to do, says Luntz, which makes Friday's matchup that much more important. "Bush has to provide a more robust defense of his record," he says. "For John Kerry, his strategy in the first debate should be his strategy in second: cut and thrust, bob and weave. Keep moving, keep attacking, keep explaining. It worked."
The president did not wait until Friday to fight back. Wednesday, he changed course on the stump in Pennsylvania, dumping a speech on medical liability reform and substituting it for one on more central topics - terrorism and the economy. He did, analysts say, what he should have done in his first debate with Kerry: focus on what he's done to stimulate the economy and highlight his administration's foreign-policy accomplishments, while sharpening his criticism of Kerry.
Still, Bush has weathered his share of bad news this week, and the burden is on him to address it and defend himself. First, the former top US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, was revealed to have delivered two recent speeches highly critical of America's military approach in Iraq, arguing that Bush had not sent enough troops to secure the peace. Then Wednesday, the chief US arms inspector undercut a central Bush administration argument for invading Iraq. In his final report, Charles Duelfer concluded that Iraq had posed little immediate threat to the US and that Saddam Hussein had not pursued a vigorous program to produce weapons of mass destruction after inspectors left in 1998.
On Friday morning, the September employment and job-creation figures will be released - the final such monthly numbers before Election Day - and if the news is good, that will give Bush something to cheer in his performance that night. Kerry's task will be to focus on those left behind, in employment and healthcare, without appearing sour and without allowing Bush to tag him as just another tax-and-spend liberal from Massachusetts.
But analysts agree that Bush carries the heavier burden Friday night, as he seeks to regain momentum. "You don't want to have two bad debates, that's for sure," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political report.
"Bush needs a real win," says Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. "It's plain and simple: Bush needs to communicate and demonstrate that he has the strength and resolve to be president. And this is more than saying the word 'resolve.' "
At the very least, the pundits have stopped talking about Bush's facial expressions and body language - a pursed-lip look of annoyance, leaning on his podium - as he listened to Kerry's answers last Thursday. One week later, it is now clear that that will go down as the dominant image of debate No. 1 in 2004, much as Democrat Al Gore's sighs became the signature debate feature of 2000.
In the vice presidential debate Tuesday night, each man's surrogates sought furiously to shape the dominant memory of that duel. The nature of "truth" in the debate has emerged as one theme. When Cheney claimed he had never met Edwards, Democrats were quick to produce photographs of the two meeting. Edwards's family spoke of the senator meeting the vice president at a prayer breakfast in 2001.
When Cheney faced allegations about his tenure as CEO of the energy company Halliburton, he requested extra time to set the record straight, but was denied by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS. Instead, he sent viewers to a fact-checking website run by the University of Pennsylvania that he identified as Factcheck.com. The only problem is that he should have said Factcheck.org. According to Slate.com, the owner of Factcheck.com, Name Administration Inc., rerouted traffic to billionaire George Soros's website - which features a strong anti-Bush message. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified the owner of Factcheck.com, as well as the reason that traffic to the site was rerouted to an anti-Bush website.]