Published September 30, 2004
NEW YORK – President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) were set to close up their debate training camps Wednesday and head for Florida, the pivotal state in the 2000 election and the site of the first 2004 presidential debate.
Florida also has a new distinction — it's taken a beating this hurricane season.
Bush planned to survey damage in the Lake Wales area of the Sunshine State from the latest of the four storms, Jeanne, and then head to Miami. His aides said his formal preparations for the face-off are over.
The debate, which is intended to focus on foreign policy and homeland security, takes place Thursday at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Watch the debate live on the FOX News Channel at 9 p.m. EDT.
Click here for FOXnews.com's daily campaign journal, "Trail Tails."
The Bush-Cheney campaign has disclosed that the president will, in his closing remarks, mention a Wisconsin businessman, Mike Shaver, whose machine parts company has benefited from the tax cuts Bush championed and signed into law.
Kerry, who will arrive in Florida later Wednesday, is getting some debate advice from former Vice President Al Gore, who debated Bush leading up to the 2000 elections. In an op-ed column in The New York Times Wednesday, Gore advises Kerry to be prepared for one of the toughest debates of his career.
"While George Bush's campaign has made 'lowering expectations' into a high art form, the record is clear — he's a skilled debater who uses the format to his advantage," Gore writes.
Vocabulary Gaffes Won't Hurt Bush
Political insiders from both sides of the aisle agree that Bush is a skilled orator in these situations and strikes a chord with those watching, despite his not-so-uncommon pronunciation slip-ups.
"George Bush has won every debate he's been in, he's been president for four years and he's the one who wanted this debate to be on foreign policy, which is his home turf. So John Kerry has his work cut out for him," Tom Downey, a former New York congressman who used to serve as Gore's mock debate partner, told FOX News.
Bush "sticks to his message and even though his syntax may not always be correct; he gets his message across," he added.
Former Texas gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Gary Mauro, also debated Bush while vying for the governor's seat in the Lone Star State.
"Bush is probably the most skilled office holder in America in holding that dialogue with Americans. It will be interesting to see if Kerry can match that skill," Mauro said.
Even if Bush mangles a few words, Mauro said, "ordinary Americans mangle the language too ... in Texas, it's not unusual to hear people talk a little funny and use words you probably won't use at Yale or Harvard."
With at least 44 million people expected to watch Thursday's debate, Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry told FOX News that the face-off is the Democratic candidate's big chance to show the American people that he's a leader with a vision for winning the peace in Iraq, winning the War on Terror and keeping America safe.
"We won't give up what's going on in the locker room before the big game right now but obviously, he's [Kerry] getting prepared and doing what he needs to do so he feels comfortable making the best case he can make about where he would lead America and how America would be different in the next four years if he serves as president," said McCurry, a former press secretary for President Clinton.
But former New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican, said Kerry has a tough job ahead of him.
"Whether you subscribe to it or not, the flip-flop issues, on John Kerry taking one position then the other, it struck home," D'Amato told FOX News. "He has to make his point strongly but yet there's a fine line ... if he's too aggressive, even if he wins the debate, he loses as a result of how he comes off."
Who's the Real Waffler?
Going into the debate, both Bush and Kerry granted high-profile television interviews — Bush to FOX News' Bill O'Reilly and Kerry to ABC News' Diane Sawyer.
In the third portion of a three-part interview, which will air Wednesday night, Bush was asked what he was thinking as he sat in the school classroom in Florida when his chief of staff, Andrew Card, informed him the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
Bush has been criticized by Democrats for not saying or doing something sooner after being told of the attack.
"I was thinking America was under attack, I was collecting my thoughts, and I wasn’t about to panic a bunch of kids," Bush tells O'Reilly. "I waited for the end of the program, I excused myself and I went to action. And what the American people will judge me on is whether or not I handled that crisis in a way that lets them know that I’ll lead in this War on Terror, that's what they need to look at, and I think they are looking at it that way."
In the second part of the interview, which aired Tuesday night, Bush was asked if he thought the nation was politically divided.
"It's just one, a period of history, you know, and I'm doing my best to bring people together. We've been united at times during my presidency. We were united after Sept. 11, we were united going into Afghanistan ... The Iraq war was a, is a polarizing event, because a lot of people didn't see the wisdom of going into Iraq," Bush said.
In Wisconsin, Kerry blasted Bush on the war in Iraq.
"He's [Bush] gotten us into this mess. It was his decision as to when to go, his decision as to how to go, his decision not to listen to his own advisers," Kerry told Sawyer.
Kerry also said it's Bush who's the waffler, even though polls show that 53 percent of voters think the Massachusetts senator changes his mind too often.
"I think their advertising, and their effort over these last months — to use that word — have been particularly successful," Kerry said. "But it doesn't reflect truth, nor does it reflect the truth of George Bush's record, who said he wouldn't go to the U.N., then he goes to the U.N., who said he didn't support homeland security and then he supports homeland security, who said he wasn't going to support the 9/11 commission and then he supports it, then he says he won't testify, then he goes to testify."
Whereas Kerry recently appeared on "Live with Regis and Kelly," the president and first lady Laura Bush were to bare their inner souls on Dr. Phil McGraw on Wednesday.
"I am really committed to putting family back in America. I think it's what you have put in the White House, and I think it's what we need to put back in America," Bush says on "Dr. Phil."
Minds Made Up
In a new FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 77 percent of 1,000 likely voters surveyed said their minds were made up between Bush and Kerry. Recent polls show that Bush has an edge on Kerry in overall support.
But 18 percent of respondents said they may very well change their votes based on how each candidate performs in the debates.
Asked whom they expected to do better in the face-offs, 39 percent said Kerry and 37 percent said Bush. Ten percent said both candidates would do the same, while 14 percent were not sure.
A clearer split emerged when asked who would do better in the Oct. 5 vice-presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and Sen. John Edwards (search). Edwards, a Democrat from North Carolina, gets the advantage from 45 percent of respondents, while 35 percent think Cheney would do better.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, James Rosen and Kelly Wright contributed to this report.