Kerry prepares for 15 minutes that could decide the election

George Bush and John Kerry are in purdah this weekend, intensely prepping for next Thursday's first presidential debate - a showdown on terrorism, Iraq and national security at the University of Miami which might settle the outcome of the 2 November election.

To be sure, the word "debate" is something of a misnomer. The rules have been worked out with the stifling precision of a superpower arms pact. The two candidates will not be able to question each other directly, and will not be allowed within a certain distance of each other. Anyone looking for spontaneity, and real intellectual cut and thrust, is likely to be disappointed.

The 32-page "memorandum of understanding" dictates everything, from the height of the lecterns (50 inches) to the distance between them (10 feet), to the temperature in the hall. It specifies the exact type of stool (with footrest and back support) to be used for the second debate. This will be a "town hall" session with swing voters whose questions will be cleared by the moderator beforehand. Woe betide anyone who dares change their question on the air. They will be immediately cut off.

Each side has made concessions. The Bush campaign, which wanted only two 90-minute debates, finally accepted the three originally proposed by the Commission for Presidential Debates. The Kerry team, however, agreed to move up national security, Mr Bush's strongest issue, to the first debate, always the most watched and most influential.

On Thursday, the domestic TV audience may reach 80 million, not to mention the uncounted millions of viewers around the world. "The first 15 or 20 minutes will be crucial," says Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's losing Republican campaign of 1996.

Already the bizarre ritual of lowering expectations is in full swing. Listen to each side, and their man is sure to lose. Democrats who normally deride Bush as an inarticulate buffoon now hail him as the finest public speaker since Demosthenes. The Bush campaign plays the same game, building up John Kerry as a surefire winner - "the greatest debater since Cicero" in the words of a straight-faced Matthew Dowd, a chief Bush/ Cheney strategist.

Both sides, however, have good reason for caution. Mr Kerry is indeed a pretty competent debater, fast on his feet and a formidable marshaller of an argument. Democrats are only too well aware that Mr Bush is all too easily underestimated - just ask Al Gore. No one ever disputed Mr Bush's folksy charm. But articulateness is another matter. A single unmangled sentence thus counts as a mighty victory.

The tactics also reflect the hugeness of the stakes on Thursday. Debates have changed elections - in 1976 a Gerald Ford gaffe about Eastern Europe wrecked his foreign policy credibility, while four years later Ronald Reagan convinced wavering voters he was not an extremist fool who could not be trusted with the presidency.

This week, a solid performance by Mr Bush would probably finish off his Democratic challenger, already lagging in the polls and far behind the President in voters' assessment of who is best able to "keep the country safe" - the central subject of the evening.

But the debates have at last put Mr Kerry on the same stage, as the President's equal. A strong showing in a direct match-up might just change the momentum of what is still a fairly close-fought race.

In the past week he has completely changed tactics, taking the offensive and lambasting the President for a misguided focus on Iraq, at the expense of the real threat posed by al-Qa'ida. The bungled aftermath of the invasion, Mr Kerry argues, has made America less, rather than more safe.

The key question, though, is whether the Democrat can break the link Mr Bush has established in voters' minds between Iraq and the "war on terror". Iraq is presented as "the central front in that war", an approach that allows the President to dodge the awkward question of whether the 2003 invasion has made America even more of a terrorist target than it was before.

Democrats believe that Mr Kerry's sharper rhetoric is starting to sow doubts in voters' minds about Mr Bush's competence; might not that vaunted single-mindedness merely be a pig-headed refusal to face facts? The first debate, however stilted its format, could provide an answer - and in the process settle the election.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment