Bush, who mounted a fresh assault on his Democratic challenger Wednesday, planned to attend an outdoor rally in Wausau, Wis., and also work in some preparation time. Kerry, meanwhile, was to continue to stay out of public view for much of the day near Denver, just as he did Wednesday, to practice answering questions in a town-hall format.
Both Bush and Kerry planned to head to St. Louis later Thursday for the debate at Washington University.
Audience members, who are mostly a group of 100-150 "soft" Kerry and Bush voters, will get to pose questions to the candidates on any topic. It will be moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC. A third and final debate takes place Oct. 13 in Arizona.
Watch the debate live on the FOX News Channel on Friday at 9 p.m. EDT.
Click here to read Thursday's edition of FOXNews.com's daily campaign digest, Trail Tales.
The style of Friday's freestyle, town-hall setting is in stark contrast to last Thursday's structured, rigid debate format in which candidates knew the question topics ahead of time and each man stood behind their own podium to address the moderator.
"This is not going to be a debate about how high your SAT scores are, but this is a debate about how much we like you," said image consultant Eric Dezenhall.
While Kerry has to not look like "he just got off a polo horse," Dezenhall said, Bush needs to look like "he's not resentful" at having to be there in the first place.
Who Needs a Home Run?
"The president will be ready," said Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mellman. "He's energized by going out on the road, he loves talking to the American people."
Mellman said Bush is likely to talk about his opponent's Senate record, as well as his own, health care, tax reform and how the president wants to apply the No Child Left Behind federal education law to U.S. high schools.
Mellman said the reason Democrats are saying the Bush-Cheney campaign is full of "lies" on Iraq, the economy, Halliburton and other issues is "because they don't have an agenda. The fact is, we have an agenda … they say 'lies' as a smokescreen."
One issue that likely will come up in Friday's debate is Iraq and whether Saddam Hussein (search) intended to manufacture and use weapons of mass destruction — the reason the United States went to war in that country in the first place.
What's known as the "Duelfer (search) report," a report by the chief U.S. arms inspector in Iraq released Wednesday by the CIA, says no evidence was found that the deposed dictator's regime was producing such weapons after 1991.
The report found that although the weapons stockpiles were destroyed, Saddam’s government was looking to begin a weapons of mass destruction program again and didn't rule out the possibility that such weapons could have been transported to Syria or elsewhere for hiding.
"The Duelfer report is a very clear additional confirmation that the rationale the Bush administration made for going to war … was absolutely false," Susan Rice, Kerry's senior adviser for national security, told FOX News.
The Bush administration has maintained that in a post-Sept. 11 environment, attacking the threats before they attack us is the best way to protect America.
"We knew the dictator had a history of using weapons of mass destruction, a long record of aggression and hatred for America," Bush said in a speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Wednesday. "There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks. In the world after Sept. 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
The report shows that "delay, defer, wait wasn't an option," Cheney told a town hall-style meeting in Florida on Thursday.
Democrats say Bush has a lot of work to do to make up for his less-then-expected debate performance in Florida last Thursday.
Bush "needs a home run Friday night because he needs to get back in ball game," said Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry. "And they will probably swing for the fence on Friday night. He's in a good position do this in this format. It fits his genial style."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe told FOX News on Thursday that despite the different format, voters will see in Kerry the "same guy that answered the questions very precisely, looked strong, had a command of the facts" as they did last week. "Look, George Bush can't perform any worse than he did the other night."
But Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said, "while Senator Kerry may have gotten a nod on style points in the [post debate] polls, I think you saw a difference in substance and policy, and that's what people base their votes on and I think we'll see that again tomorrow night in St. Louis."
Wooing the Undecideds and the Softs
Both candidates won't be appealing to party loyalists, however, but to the portion of the electorate who are soft in their support for either candidate or that which is still undecided.
"What this debate is about is four states — it's about Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — it's not about the general public at large," said Richard Fisher, a former U.S. trade official under President Clinton. "People are trying to get electoral votes — these men cannot do anything to turn off voters in these states, which is what it's come down to."
Fisher added: "John Kerry's already got the Michael Moore crowd. What the president has to do is get the Mel Gibson crowd" of evangelical Christians and other religious and conservative groups "and target those groups in these key states."
GOP strategist Rich Galen said there's another goal besides winning over swing voters.
"I also think there is a general feeling around the country that each side is going to want to cement among their supporters that their guy has a possibility of winning, can actually win," Galen said. "I don't think Senator Kerry can climb the hill because even after everything that's happened, he's still not where he was after his convention."
Many experts agree that there's no question Bush is more comfortable in the town-hall like setting where he can speak directly to the voters. Both candidates will be seated on stools and will have "coach's box" areas that they can wander in.
"We've certainly seen this president in that type of setting perform very well ... the thing is, President Bush has always been very skillful in terms of connecting with audiences," said Washington Post political columnist and FOX News contributor Ceci Connelly. "I think, given this opportunity to interact with what we refer to as 'real people' — that's an environment I think he's certainly more comfortable with. The question will be whether President Bush thinks he continues to be on the defensive" and makes faces, as he did during the first debate.
But others say Kerry may surprise some.
"I would concede that this is a strength for George W. Bush when he is facing a friendly crowd," said Steve Murphy, former campaign manager for Dick Gephardt. "John Kerry not only campaigns in a lot of town-hall meetings now … but he did a number of debates with exactly this format during the Democratic primaries — he's kind of a seasoned veteran in doing this."
Democratic strategists maintain that Kerry still has the steam gained from last week's debate — which most people agree the Massachusetts senator won handily.
"There's no question but the momentum is clearly with Kerry," said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew.
"The mistake in Miami, as it's called in Bush-land," Andrew said of the first debate, during which Bush made various disgusted and pained faces at various comments Kerry made and often didn't take up all the time he was given to answer questions. "There's no question he's learned from his mistakes."
The president himself commented on his facial faux pas.
"He [Kerry] said terrorists are pouring across the Iraqi border, but also said that fighting those terrorists is a diversion from the War on Terror. You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face."