The election is 33 days away. The first of three presidential debates is Thursday night, when the two candidates vying for the White House will stand side-by-side each other for the first time during this campaign. And this is an event where the positioning of lights and the temperature of the room President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) will face off in make apparently make a world of difference.
Chasing the Light Rabbit
Thursday's big pre-debate dispute was over a little box of three colored lights set on the top of each candidate's podium. The debate rules say timing lights shall be visible to the debate audience and television viewers.
The Bush camp insisted on this because it felt Kerry has a tendency to give long answers.
When a candidate has 30 seconds left to answer, a green light will turn on; when there are 15 seconds left, a yellow light will go on; with five seconds left, the red light will turn on; and when the candidate's time is up, the red light will start blinking.
The Kerry camp says this is all an effort by the Bush team to create a distraction. A senior Kerry campaign official met with the Debate Commission (search) and threatened to remove the lights from Kerry's podium when the senator went through his run-through here in the hall Thursday afternoon.
But the Bush team says that's what both sides agreed to, and the debate commission agreed.
"We'll do what we have to," Kerry strategist Tad Devine said after his meeting with the commission. But he also suggested the dispute will pass once Kerry's team makes its point. "We'll beat them over the head a little bit, then we'll see what happens."
So Thursday night, not only will viewers get a debate between Bush and Kerry but a duel of colored lights, as well.
"FOX News Live" anchor Shepard Smith tried to get to the bottom of the bulb hullabaloo with Kerry senior adviser, Mike McCurry (search).
"The real concern is they look goofy. I've never seen a podium that had flashing lights like it was the 'Gong Show,'" McCurry told FOX News. "Get 'em off the podium ... [the issue is] one of those little rabbits you let out on the field and chase them around."
In other debate minutiae, debate rules also dictate what types of pens and pencils the candidates can use, and the color of the debate hall.
This year's rules also set the room 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 is the same size, which illustrates Kerry's 3 or 4 inch height advantage over the president.
Four years ago, Ohio delivered its 20 electoral votes for President Bush.
But a new state poll done by CNN/USA Today/Gallup of 664 registered voters gave Bush 49 percent, a drop from 52 percent on Sept. 8. Kerry's support rose from 43 percent to 47 percent during the time period while independent Ralph Nader went from 2 percent to 1 percent.
As he departed Wisconsin, after preparing for the first debate, Kerry's campaign unveiled a new attack ad telegraphing how he hopes to put Bush on the defensive over Iraq.
Kerry accuses the president of flip-flopping on the reasons for war and lacking a plan for its aftermath. But Kerry's been accused of flip-flopping for opposing the war that he originally voted to authorize. He said on ABC's Good Morning America his position is clear.
“Knowing there was no imminent threat to America, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, knowing there was no connection of Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda (search), I would not have gone to war. That's plain and simple,” Kerry said.
But before and after Kerry voted in favor of war authorization, he repeatedly called Saddam a threat based on intelligence. Later, he opposed $87 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. Kerry knows he must better explain this gaffe.
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” Kerry said in Huntington, W.Va., on March 16.
To GMA, he said: “I had one of those inarticulate moments late in the evening when I was dead tired in the primaries and I didn't say something very clearly.”
Except it wasn't a late-night rally, it was 1:20 in the afternoon.
Before leaving Wisconsin, Kerry blasted the president for skyrocketing gas prices, coddling the Saudis and lacking a plan for U.S. independence from Mideast oil.
“The average American is gonna feel the pain of the fact that the President Bush has broken his promise, doesn't have an energy policy for this country … and doesn't know how he's gonna solve the problem of Iraq,” he said.
Urban Legend or Nasty Political Rumor?
The Kerry campaign argues the situation is rapidly deteriorating in Iraq, but Vice President Dick Cheney made the case Wednesday for giving the new government a chance.
“Yet a lot of people out there want to say, 'Oops, it's failure.' They don't have any idea whether it's failure or not, these folks have just barely gotten started, gotten their feet on the ground. And they're doin' a good job,” he said.
Cheney was asked about a rumor flying around college campuses via the Internet — encouraged by some Democratic groups — that the Bush administration has a secret plan to bring back the draft.
“This is an urban legend or nasty political rumor. I'm not sure which,” Cheney said. “Nobody has any intention, nobody in a position of responsibility, any intention of trying to reinstitute the draft.”
Probe Into Bogus Documents?
CBS' problems with Memogate continue to grow.
On Wednesday, 52 Republican congressmen urged Texas' attorney general and the U.S. attorney in Lubbock to investigate who created the bogus documents at the heart of the now discredited CBS News story accusing bush of shirking his Guard duties.
“We request an immediate criminal investigation and prosecution if warranted. Our interest is whether any state or federal crimes were committed,” the lawmakers said.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (search) has already forwarded the lawmakers' request to the investigative division of the Texas Rangers.
NARRATOR: Why did George Bush go to war in Iraq? The reason keeps changing. First, it was weapons of mass destruction. [Not true] Later, Iraq's links to Al Qaeda. [Not true] One reason after another — a new one offered every time the facts crumble. Now Americans are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded. Over 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died. Maybe George Bush can't tell us why he went to Iraq ... but it's time he tells us how he's going to fix it.
JOHN KERRY: We're the country that invents the future and it's time for America to invest in new technology. Alternative fuels and the cars of the future so we can make ourselves independent of Mideast oil in the next ten years. Our freedom and independence are at stake. I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family. I'm John Kerry and I approved this message because no young American should be held hostage to our dependence on Mideast oil.
Ad: 'A Mother's Message to George Bush'
Sponsor: RealVoices.org, a 527 group spending $200,000 in battleground states starting next week.
CINDY SHEERAN: The sergeant said, "Sheehan, you don't have to go," because my son was a mechanic. He was a Humvee mechanic. And Casey said, "Where my chief goes, I go." And he knew what had to be done. And he died in his best friend's arms in Iraq. I imagined it would have hurt if one of my kids was killed but I never thought it would hurt this bad. Especially someone so honest and brave as Casey, my son. When you haven't been honest with us. When you and your advisers rushed us into this war. How do you think we felt when we heard the Senate reports that said there was no link between Iraq and 9/11?
ON SCREEN: In honor of Spc. Casey Sheehan (with photo of Sheehan)
ANNOUNCER: This message was paid for by RealVoices.org
Ad: 'Never Forget'
Sponsor: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the high-profile 527 group spending $1.4 million on national cable for ads in Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Mexico.
ON SCREEN: Mary Jane McManus, Wife of Former POW
MARY JANE MCMANUS: Three months after we were married, my husband was shot down over Hanoi.
ON SCREEN: Phyllis Galanti, Wife of Former POW
PHYLLIS GALANTI: Paul and I were married in 1963. Two years later he was shot down over North Vietnam.
MCMANUS: All of the prisoners of war in North Vietnam were tortured in order to obtain confessions of atrocities.
GALANTI: On the other hand, John Kerry came home and accused all Vietnam veterans of unspeakable horrors.
ON SCREEN: "… they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads …" — John Kerry's Testimony, United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, April 22, 1971
MCMANUS: John Kerry gave aide and comfort to the enemy by advocating their negotiating points to our government.
GALANTI: Why is it relevant? Because John Kerry is asking us to trust him.
MCMANUS: I will never forget John Kerry's testimony. If we couldn't trust John Kerry then, how could we possibly trust him now?
ON SCREEN: Paid for by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Ad: 'One Question'
Source: Democratic National Committee
VOICE-OVER: Here's what some of the Republicans are saying about their plan in Iraq.
TEXT: Here's what Republicans are saying about their plan for the war in Iraq
VOICE-OVER: "It's getting worse"
TEXT: "It's getting worse" — Colin Powell, Secretary of State, Sept. 26, 2004, ABC "This Week"
VOICE-OVER: "We're not winning"
TEXT: "We're not winning" — Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, Sept. 14, 2004, NBC Nightly News
VOICE-OVER: "The lack of planning is apparent"
TEXT: "The lack of planning is apparent" — Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, Sept. 15, 2004, Federal News Service
VOICE-OVER: The Facts
VOICE-OVER: 200 billion dollars in costs
TEXT: 200 billion dollars in costs
VOICE-OVER: Daily kidnappings and murders
TEXT: Daily kidnappings and murders
VOICE-OVER: New terrorist havens
TEXT: New terrorist havens
VOICE-OVER: More than 1,000 U.S. Soldiers killed
TEXT: More than 1,000 U.S. Soldiers killed
VOICE-OVER: This week it will come down to one question:
TEXT: One Question
VOICE-OVER: Will Americans finally hear the real truth about Iraq?
TEXT: Will Americans finally hear the real truth about Iraq?
FOX News' Corbett Riner, Carl Cameron, Major Garrett,Jim Angle and Chris Wallace contributed to this report.