Mr Kerry must prevail in this debate if he is to keep the Democrats' challenge alive

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The Independent Online

Finally, after what has seemed a perpetual campaign, John Kerry and George Bush are to confront each other in person. And the stakes in this first of three televised presidential debates could not be higher. For the Kerry campaign, this debate is a truly make-or-break occasion, determining whether the Democrats have any chance at all of winning back the White House. The omens, alas, are not good.

Strictly speaking, these events are not debates at all. They are television game shows in which every point of procedure, every journalist moderator, every channel granted rights to the live broadcast, has been negotiated by teams of sherpas as finely as a clause in a Cold War arms treaty. Some conform to a Question Time format that can include (approved) contributions from the floor; others are more reminiscent of a cosy double interview conducted around a table. It is a very long time since there has been anything resembling a real debate.

For all the negotiation and sanitising of the format, however, the central attraction - the element of the duel - remains. The candidates are on their own against each other, and not even the best of negotiators can insulate them from every risk. It is one against one, face to face, a sudden-death play-off staged live on television. And the viewers - the voters - are the sternest of critics. One ill-advised move, one false note, and the candidate is rumbled. The spin machines can whirr away afterwards in an effort to limit the damage, but - as Al Gore learned four years ago - voters dislike posturing and they can spot overacting a mile off.

Then, the election was Mr Gore's to lose, and he lost it - at least in part because his performance in the debates seemed to confirm some of his wavering supporters' worst suspicions. He came across as over-trained and uncomfortable in his skin. The debates also convinced enough voters that George Bush was not so stupid or inarticulate that he could not be president. The stage for the eventual denouement in the US Supreme Court, via Florida, was set.

It is a nice irony that tonight's first presidential debate of 2004 is being held in Miami, not a million miles from West Palm Beach, the scene of the recount debacle four years ago and the constituency immortalised in pictures of scrutineers trying, mostly in vain, to detect the intention of the voter from the condition of the chad. This was no way to establish an election result. But the dead heat that had necessitated it was a fate that Mr Gore had brought upon himself.

John Kerry's defeat is likely to be rather earlier and more comprehensive unless he can swing tonight's debate convincingly in his favour. And notwithstanding the hand-wringing among his supporters, there are factors that could work for him. Through the early stages of a campaign, a sitting president has the key advantage that he appears regularly on television looking presidential, not just in campaign mode. Debates place both candidates in the same space, on an equal footing, and tend to favour the challenger. Mr Bush's dismal record as President, if Mr Kerry can exploit it, could negate another advantage of incumbency: experience of the Oval Office.

That the first debate deals with foreign relations could also favour Mr Kerry. Mr Bush, to be sure, is no longer as ill-informed about the world as he was four years ago. But the war in Iraq is starting to cast almost as dark a shadow over his presidency as it does over Tony Blair's second term as Prime Minister. Until now, the Bush team has managed to turn Mr Kerry's exemplary military record and his changing stance on the Iraq war against him by dint of some diabolically clever and ruthless trickery. This is Mr Kerry's chance to set the record straight, to put his case against George Bush's war directly to the voters and to expose Mr Bush's simplistic justifications for the crowd-pleasing platitudes they are.

If he succeeds, this will be his ticket to the second debate - and to his survival as a candidate. Given his current poor showing in the polls, nothing less will do.