NEW YORK – Terrorism and the Iraq war are expected to be front and center during the first live televised presidential debate between President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) Thursday night.
The Republican incumbent and his Democratic opponent will challenge each other at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., in the first of three events that could significantly influence whom Americans cast their votes for on Election Day. Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) — Kerry's vice presidential hopeful — will square off on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
Watch the 90-minute debate live on the FOX News Channel at 9 p.m. EDT.
Thursday's focus will be foreign policy and homeland security.
Bush will likely portray Kerry as a weak leader who flip-flops on the major issues, like Iraq.
Kerry is expected to paint Bush as someone who's unrealistic in his optimism about Iraq. Kerry is also expected to verbally pound Bush for not tackling other major problems, such as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran.
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Click here to see the candidates' positions on all the major issues of the campaign.
The rigid debate rules set the color of the halls and the temperature at 70 degrees — a win for Bush, who loves the heat of Central Texas. Kerry, who tends to sweat, reportedly wanted the room cooler. Each podium will be the same size, which will illustrate Kerry's 3 or 4 inch height advantage over the president.
At the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., aides readied a so-called "war room" from which they will dispense, in real-time, their own facts, spin and counter-claims against what Kerry says during the debate.
Bush-Cheney 2004 strategist Matthew Dowd acknowledges that Kerry has a knack and talent for the debate format - and has even compared the Massachusetts senator to Marcus Tullius Cicero, the legendary and influential Roman Republic-era politician, orator and philosopher.
"He's a great debater," Dowd told FOX News on Thursday. "He's a formidable opponent. ... There will be a good back-and-forth."
Referring to recent polls showing Bush with a slight lead over the senator, Dowd added: "John Kerry has to change the nature of the race."
Kerry, for his part, called Bush "a very clever debater" and said their first appearance together Thursday night will give him the opportunity to be clear with people about where he stands on issues.
Kerry said in an interview that he can laugh at jokes about being long-winded.
"I deserve that, sometimes, and look forward to the opportunity to, crystal clear, let people know where I stand," Kerry said in a television interview.
Asked why polls showed Bush gaining support among women voters, Kerry said: "George Bush is scaring America. He's talking terror every day, and people see terrible images of what's happening in the world, and they're real."
Plans for Iraq
On the campaign trail, Bush sees progress in Iraq toward stability, democratic elections and civic life. Kerry sees increasing instability, little reconstruction and terrorist havens.
Kerry campaign adviser Tad Devine disputed claims that Bush and Kerry are actually more similar than different in their Iraq and terror policies.
"There couldn't be two more different candidates," he told FOX News. "The president and John Kerry fundamentally disagree about what's happening today in Iraq and what's got to be done there."
Devine said Kerry favors immediate meetings with international allies to win their support and more attention to the advice of military leadership on the ground.
But Kerry conceded that no president could say he could stop any terrorist attack.
"No president can say that. But I will make America safer than George Bush has in any number of ways," he said in a television interview. "I know how to fight a more effective War on Terror, and by the end of this campaign America will make that decision, and that's why I'm going to win."
Bush, who points out that Saddam Hussein (search) has been captured and security at home has been improved, portrays the Massachusetts Democrat as too indecisive to take the bold action needed to go after terrorists.
Kerry contends Bush led the nation into a war that has distracted attention and resources from the pursuit of Al Qaeda and its leader, Usama bin Laden (search).
"The real question tonight is going to be, did the president lead us in the right way?" Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told FOX News on Thursday. "The debate itself is going to be rather stilted, but he's going to have to level with the American people … The president does not have a consistent plan, and even if he says he does, it doesn't make it true."
Sen. George Allen, R-Va., told FOX News that Kerry has his own justifying to do.
"The challenge for Sen. Kerry is what position he's going to take on Iraq. ... I think President Bush has shown that strong clarity of purpose."
Kerry has argued that his own positions on Iraq have been consistent, despite the president's portrayal of the senator as flip-flopping between support for and opposition to the war.
"He is going to have to tell us why he voted yes and no," said Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University.
Alan Schroeder, a presidential debate expert at Northeastern University in Boston, said Kerry might try addressing the criticism directly.
"If somebody has successfully hung a rap on you, you need to throw it off, not try to rationalize it," Schroeder said.
Waning Hours Before Face Off
Bush spent the first part of Thursday in Stuart, Fla., in his fifth trip to the hurricane-torn state to survey the damage done by four powerful storms in six weeks. He has pledged $12 billion for the relief effort; so far Congress has approved $2 billion of that.
He also visited a Red Cross site and thanked volunteers from that organization, the Salvation Army and other faith-based and community groups for helping those in need.
"These volunteers show the true heart of America and care when a neighbor hurts," Bush said. "They have the gratitude of all they've served and admiration of the whole country."
The rest of the day, the president was resting at his Miami hotel, according to White House spokesman Trent Duffy. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Communications Director Dan Bartlett and other staff were with him, Duffy said.
Kerry, who arrived in Florida Wednesday, was also spending much of Thursday relaxing, according to spokesman David Wade. Other than a debate site walk-through, he planned to have lunch with his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry "and is taking it easy," Wade said.
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."
In a new FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 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.
FOX News' Liza Porteus, James Rosen, Kelly Wright, Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.