Election or eviction? Kerry and Bush vie for the ultimate reality TV prize

Reality television just gets better. On Thursday, viewers in America will be invited to watch a live special, called Presidential Debate, that promises to be so compelling that every network will broadcast it simultaneously. It will star two middle-aged men competing for one prize: the White House.

Best of all, it is the viewers who will ultimately decide which of the two contestants, George Bush or John Kerry, is the winner. Between Thursday and November, there will be two more episodes as well as a bonus feature when their running mates will get to play their own version.

As always in reality TV, it will not just be the contestants' words that will matter. Almost as important will be their demeanour. Who will the viewers most easily connect with? Will Mr Kerry impress or send us running to the fridge for beer? If Mr Bush stumbles on his syntax, will we wince or barely care? The ties they choose, the frequency of their smiles, how they use their hands - all could be deciding factors.

From now until Thursday, the normal campaigning rhythms will come almost to a standstill, as both candidates disappear into semi-purdah to get ready for the 90-minute ordeal. Senator Kerry, the Democrat, is at a resort town in Wisconsin, huddled with aides and image consultants, while President Bush began his preparations at the weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Rarely has a series of presidential debates generated such an intense level of anticipation. Pitted against one another will be two men with much in common, including well-heeled backgrounds and experiences as students of a former Yale University oratory professor who coached them both on debating.

Yet they are men with starkly differing political personas. The President is good at folksy while Mr Kerry suffers from seeming too clever. And if Mr Kerry is clever, then Mr Bush can, on occasion, run the risk of turning his affection for making things simple and straightforward into seeming intellectually simplistic. Of the myriad pieces of advice that both men will be hearing is this: don't be afraid. For Mr Bush it could mean appearing flustered - and mangling his words. For Mr Kerry, nerves usually lead him to chop his hands through the air in a way that is distractingly out of synch with the words coming out of his mouth.

The stakes may be highest for Mr Kerry. Thursday's debate and the two others to follow - one in Missouri and one in Arizona - could be Mr Kerry's last chance to up-end the race before it is too late. Voters know him least well. If he outscores the President - on substance and on likeability - he might just vault over him in the polls and capture a lead that he could consolidate in the final weeks until polling day.

As requested by the Bush camp, the topics for debate at their first face-off will be foreign relations, terrorism and Iraq. That was meant to be the President's strongest turf, but recently Mr Kerry has signalled that he considers it ripe for exploitation. For 10 days now, he has been fiercely attacking the President's "stubborn incompetence" on Iraq and accusing him of failing to come clean on the mess there.

Iraq will leave little scope for levity, even as historians admonish that wit and humour can be a debater's best weapons. That is tricky for Mr Kerry who has been told to smile more and look less grave - even though he cannot help his heavy eyelids and almost basset-hound facial droop. But there may be a trap here for Mr Bush, whose appeal is his chummy conviviality. His smile could become a smirk.

"If I were prepping Bush," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton aide and Kerry advisor, "I would warn him about crossing the line from self-confident to cocky. People like his self-confidence but there are moments, particularly when he's jacked up on adrenaline, when he crosses that line."

The Republican spin on Iraq is that Mr Kerry would be a hesitant leader, too weak to win the war or deter terrorists. Mr Bush, by contrast, is portrayed as resolute and unerring. Indeed last night, he was due to say on Fox News that he has no regrets about declaring "Mission Accomplished" on an aircraft carrier last May, even though the months that followed showed the conflict in Iraq had actually barely begun.

But if Mr Kerry hits his mark, Mr Bush's more-resolute-than-thou script may fray. "His strongest quality is also a kind of weakness to be exploited, so you don't know how this is going to play out," said Wayne Fields of Washington University in St Louis. "If, all of a sudden, the situation looks more complicated, and Kerry is able to show he can take things on and master them, then this could turn against Bush."

Neither side, meanwhile, is under-estimating the opposition. It is a quirk of history that both men have drawn, over the years, on the teaching of their shared Yale oratory professor, Rollin Osterweis. Both men were at Yale two years apart from one another, and both took classes on oratory and debating skills with the professor.

It was Mr Kerry who became one of the star pupils. Most famously, in 1966, Mr Kerry took on a travelling British team to debate the relevance of the UN. Mr Kerry championed the world body and defeated the visitors.

The Bush camp is playing the game of lowering expectations. "Senator Kerry has been preparing his whole life for this moment," commented Dan Bartlett, the White House spokesman. "He was an all-star debater in prep school and an all-star debater in Ivy League. Will President Bush step on his own line and maybe not pronounce a word right? I bet he will. But, I think after the 90 minutes, there won't be any ambiguity on his positions."


John F. Kennedy vs Richard Nixon (1960)

Nixon wore "Lazy Shave" to mask his five o'clock shadow but no other make-up and viewers were turned off by his pale and visibly sweating features.

Gerald Ford vs Jimmy Carter (1976)

Ford makes famous gaffe: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."

Ronald Reagan vs Walter Mondale (1984)

Reagan used humour to avoid fears he was too old. "I will not make age an issue. I am not going to exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience."

Vice president Dan Quayle vs Lloyd Bentsen (1988)

Quayle asserts that he is just as experienced as JFK was when he ran for President. Bentsen fires back: "I knew Jack Kennedy. He was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

George Bush Sr vs Bill Clinton and also Ross Perot (1992)

Bush damaged when he is caught looking at his watch in the second debate, suggesting boredom.

George Bush vs Al Gore (2000)

Bush pokes fun at Gore for exaggerating and for once suggesting that he invented the internet.

David Usborne