The presidential election is 36 days away, but the news shows and vote-watchers are looking to a closer date — Thursday night's first presidential debate between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, scheduled to take place in Coral Gables, Fla.
Battle of the Reigning Champs
Former Massachusetts Governor William Weld debated Kerry eight times during the 1996 Senate race. He told "FOX News Sunday" that Kerry's strengths lie in his ability to articulate his position and his knowledge of the issues, particularly on the domestic agenda.
"The guy is a real wordsmith," Weld added, saying that aside from having "the force of Jujitsu," in which he is able to use his opponent's force against him, Kerry is the "past master of the art of changing the subject." He said he expects Kerry to "bob and weave more" during these debates than the ones he held against Weld.
Former Texas gubernatorial Democratic candidate Garry Mauro debated then-Gov. Bush once in 1998. He said this time, Bush "will be totally focused. He will be talking directly to the American people."
Mauro said no one should expect any surprises from Bush, who rehashes well-practiced lines and sticks to them. He said Bush could be weak if he doesn't appear "intellectually curious," even though he will be talking directly to Americans.
"He will ignore John Kerry, and it will be very interesting to see if anybody's able to engage him beyond what he wants to say to the American people." Mauro said.
Mauro also added that Kerry will be prone to speaking directly to the American voters, and that he will have only "one shot" to talk so he won't try to engage Bush in a "give-and-take."
The Expectations Game
The first debate is arguably the most important because more people tune in to the first one than the others. Each side, therefore, is trying to lower expectations about their own candidate while building up expectations for the other.
Bush adviser Karen Hughes said last week that the president will "make his case clearly" in the debates, but Kerry has "spent his lifetime preparing for these debates," having practiced debating in prep school, college and the U.S. Senate.
Kerry's advisers said the senator is preparing and studying up for the debates, and is looking forward to talking about foreign policy at Thursday's match-up. But Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday that while Bush is a "great debater," he wins "on style not on substance."
On Bush's trail ...
Bush was not out campaigning on Sunday, instead spending his time at his Crawford, Texas, ranch where he is prepping for Thursday's debate. While the candidates plan to travel to the University of Miami to discuss foreign policy, the location of the first debate missed out on the heaviest storm weather to hit the state. The White House said the president is getting regular updates on Tropical Storm Jeanne, downgraded Sunday from a Category One hurricane, but still having left its mark on a good portion of Florida, which has been battered by four hurricanes in the last six weeks.
"Our hearts go out to the people of Florida as they endure yet another storm," White House spokesman Trent Duffy told FOX News. "[The president] will continue to make sure Florida and the region gets whatever resources it needs to recover from this extended battering and to get back on its feet."
On Kerry's trail...
Kerry hints at his debate arsenal ...
The senator left his Beacon Hill home in Boston early on Sunday to go to Wisconsin, where he will remain until he goes to Florida on Wednesday for Thursday's debate. Responding to a new pro-Bush ad from an outside group called Progress for America Voter Fund, the Kerry camp has launched its own campaign called "Despicable," which calls the organization a "right wing front group doing Bush's dirty work."
In Wisconsin where he attended a town hall meeting, Kerry told reporters that the president "continues to live in a fantasy world of spin." Kerry said since Bush claimed the mission in Iraq had been accomplished in May 2003, 900 servicemen and women have died. He said he has a plan to go after, hunt out and kill the terrorists, and will never be a president who just says "mission accomplished," he will get the mission accomplished.
... while running mate John Edwards goes on attack
While one battleground state football team pummeled another battleground state football team on Sunday, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards was nearby, telling several hundred people in Detroit's New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ that Republicans are immorally attempting to divide the nation by taking partisan advantage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The truth is they're trying to exploit one of our nation's greatest tragedies for personal gain. It is immoral, and it is wrong," Edwards said. "This isn't a Republican issue or a Democratic issue."
Edwards plans to appear Monday in Manchester, N.H., with Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. A former Bush supporter, Breitweiser is described by the Kerry-Edwards campaign as a driving force behind the creation of the Sept. 11 commission.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Sponsor: Kerry-Edwards 2004, Inc.
Narrator: "Despicable politics. An Un-American way to campaign. The latest Bush/Cheney attacks against John Kerry. George Bush and Dick Cheney are using the 'appalling' and 'divisive' strategy of playing politics with the war on terror. A strategy that undermines the efforts...to combat terrorists in America and puts George Bush's own ambition ahead of the national good. It's time to stop dividing America and stop playing politics with the war on terror."
Ad: "Finish It" (Released Friday)
Sponsor: Progress for America Voter Fund
Narrator: These people want to kill us. They killed hundreds of innocent children in Russia, 200 innocent commuters in Spain and more than 3,000 innocent Americans. John Kerry has a 30 year record of supporting cuts in defense and intelligence and endlessly changing positions on Iraq. Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers? President Bush didn't start this war but he will finish it."
"Soft Bigotry" of Little Gym Time
A tradition has started among some of the male producers and crew members in the White House press corps. Every time President Bush says the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations,” a reference to the "achievement gap" in the American education system, the men do 20 push-ups (after the speech at the first convenient moment.)
With little personal time among the media covering the president's many travels, it is a minor substitute for a regular exercise regimen, but it does provide some comic relief for the traveling press, some of whom now look forward to hearing the president say the oft-repeated phrase in his speeches.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg contributed to this report.