Here’s What Bush, Kerry Will Need to Do in the Debates

Posted September 20, 2004 at 5:58pm

For all incumbents, from mayors to governors to presidents, the debate over debates is all about one thing: control.

[IMGCAP(1)]Incumbents want to control the format, dates, moderators, length and number of debates. Challengers look for opportunities to score and to come across as worthy opponents. But once the dates, formats and other logistical issues are locked in, it’s time to focus on what President Bush and John Kerry must do to come out ahead.

Last week, I was reminded by one of my astute friends from the Gore campaign that the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates are one of those things “where it really isn’t about the handlers or strategists doing it.” It’s about the “candidate” and how he wishes to present himself, his ideas and vision.

Judging by the pre-debate hype, positioning and the spin, this year’s debates could become one of the defining moments of this presidential campaign.

There’s no debate about one fact from the 2000 presidential campaign: Former Vice President Al Gore underestimated President Bush’s “down-home” debating style. Prior to the first debate in Boston, Bush’s team did an effective job lowering expectations, stating that their only goal was “survival.” Well, it worked then, but judging from some of the comments and positioning they have made this year to lower the bar, they’d better change their tune. The Kerry campaign is hip to their strategy.

Back in 2000, I learned quickly that the debates are more about style than substance, especially when one side is able to frame the discussion about their opponent’s so-called debate prowess. Matt Dowd, President Bush’s chief pollster, recently was quoted as saying that Kerry is one the best debaters ever — “better than Cicero.”

Cicero? I can’t wait to read how Matt came up with comparing Kerry to the great ancient Roman philosopher.

But back to the modern world. It’s clear that the president’s team will give the impression that their only goal is to survive or come out of the debates with a draw. After all, this is one of those unique opportunities where Bush will have to answer questions directly without equivocating. Of course, it all depends on the moderator and whether follow-up questions are allowed when the president begins to “bob and weave” in order to run out the clock.

These debates, while staged for the TV audience, are not the same as a campaign rally or events with self-identified supporters. This time, undecided voters as well as the partisans will have an opportunity to get a better glimpse of the candidates. When the debates are concluded, voters should be in a better position to decide who is best to lead America in the post-9/11 era. That is why these debates are essential to the challenger.

For Kerry, the goals should be straightforward. For starters, he should just be himself and stand up for what he believes in. On the stump and at the convention, the Bush-Cheney team has mercilessly painted Kerry as a flip-flopping, weak, indecisive leader who cannot be trusted to confront the growing evil America faces from terrorists.

Thus far, President Bush has managed to turn the conversation to Kerry’s shortcomings as a candidate and to evade answering the difficult questions on events that have taken place during his watch. Kerry should avoid falling into their traps and keep his answers crisp, pointed and focused. Remember: The debates are not just about who is the “smartest” candidate, but also who is more “likable.”

Therefore, Kerry should try to keep his cool and just smile when Bush goes on the attack. Indeed, I would urge Kerry to respond to Bush by saying: “Mr. President, you’re so fixated on my record because you have nothing positive to run on. Once again, Mr. President, you’re trying to distract people from where you have taken this country. I believe America can do better.”

I know that Kerry is no slouch when it comes to debating, and my advice will likely fall on deaf ears. But as someone who believed Gore won the first and third debates of 2000, Kerry must resist the temptation of being condescending to his opponent. Trust me on this one, because the president’s image out there is as someone who is stubborn and will stand his ground — even when he’s wrong.

In the final analysis, the debates should allow voters to get a better fix on who John Kerry is as a candidate and as a person. Kerry can use this opportunity to once again show the American people that he can lead America in a time of crisis.

Although some Democratic strategists and activists are hitting the panic button, Kerry’s debate performances should help strengthen his position as a challenger. In those crucial battleground states, Kerry’s post-debate posture should improve and assist the campaign in regaining the momentum in the home stretch.

Now, let the debates begin.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.