Three days before the meet-up between President Bush and Wannabe Kerry in Coral Gables, Kerry has effectively already conceded the first debate to the President, an amazing fumble of one his last opportunities to grab the initiative in his fading hope to win the election.
First, the field conditions. Trivial to many people, the candidates both know that the right conditions can make the difference. And Kerry is at a disadvantage now. The podiums are 10 feet from each other, which denies Kerry the chance to tower over the President. Maybe he'd like to stroll around while he makes a point? No, the rules say the candidates have to stay at their podiums, which works better for Bush. Maybe John will toss out a well-prepared zinger? Not unless he's memorized it: prepared notes are not allowed. Maybe the networks will help, by showing "reaction" shots of family or audience members? Nope, that's been scratched. Ah, well, maybe some clever angles to portray a candidate's reaction to the other guy? Also nixed. These debates are all straightforward presentations of the candidates, staying at their podium, and answering the questions. Think about how the President looks and sounds when he's directly addressing a point, and recall how Kerry looked at the DNC, and you can see why this is a clear Bush advantage.
Also, the topic and rules of order are critical. This first debate can give Kerry a chance to get people interested, or it can slam the door on him. The last area where Kerry would want to debate, is Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism. While Kerry will have a chance to bring up Iraq, it's also a very weak area for him, because while President Bush can point to specific accomplishments and a consistent policy, Kerry is wide open for the 'flip flop' accusation, pretty much no matter what he says. Now, Kerry would like to obscure his mistake by talking things to distraction, but the time limit on each answer will prevent that. Further, since each candidate is expected to answer the initial question, and follow-ups are not allowed, if Kerry starts down that road, he's going to look like a guy who won't answer direct questions. The format is perfect for the President, and nearly the worst possible situation for Kerry. John Kerry is left to choose, between incomplete answers, looking angry and hostile, or radically changing his public persona in less than a week from his last appearance.
Why would Kerry's team agree to this? Well, first off, they had a real problem - they badly wanted three debates, and to get the third debate they had to allow the Bush team some things it wanted, and someone didn't do the math. Also, some of the conditions appear to help Kerry a bit - the ban against follow-up questions, for example, limits the damage Kerry could take on things like details of his Vietnam service, or specifics on how he would make his Foreign Policy actually succeed. The problem for John is, without such details, he's going to sound vague and unrealistic about how he can do a better job in high-stakes situations. Sooner or later, John will realize he is far behind in this issue, and needs something big to win over the voters. But it's too late for John's team, to get the conditions that would make it possible to make the big play. It's a little bit like a team playing from two scores down in the Fourth Quarter, in the game where it's illegal to gain more than 8 yards on a play. You can score that way, but the team in the lead is pretty happy to get the long pass play prohibited.
I'm not saying Bush can be cocky; if he does, he can blow this debate on his own. But if he sticks to his game plan, as he has repeatedly shown he can, President Bush can pull well ahead in this debate.
The next reason I think this debate is already done, is the team each side is using to prepare for the debate. The GOP team includes James Baker, Haley Barbour, and Karen Hughes. They are not only solid on the issues, they are accomplished veterans in the public eye. They do not, to put it simply, screw up, and they will make sure the President knows his paces.
As for the Kerry team, they include Vernon Jordan, Jennifer Granholm, and Janet Napolitano. These guys are good on the facts, but one thing I don't see here is a critical component - they are all numbers crunchers, not known for wowing people. In other words, Kerry is working with people who are already just like him, and the result, I expect, will be a man ready for the academic part of the debate, but not prepared to charm anybody. No one with TV experience, no one with any real Charisma (consider Hughes, in counterpoint, worked hard to help President Bush look and sound approachable, not aloof or cold, and his image grew as a result, especially in 2002).
What I see here, is a match-up between a President who will speak plainly, without all that much detail, but he will be able to sell his ideas, and a Senator who seems to be preparing to ignore style and personality, planning to overwhelm his opponent with data, but who may not see beyond the audience in the hall.
That audience may also be a big problem for Kerry. Florida has been hit by four hurricanes in the recent past, and the people there have gotten used to seeing the President. Bush's numbers have been coming up in Florida the past few weeks, largely because no one is blaming him for the disasters, but the rescue and recovery response has been appropriate and fast. The people in Coral Gables (near Miami) may well look at John Kerry as just a guy from another state, while Bush is the President who is addressing their needs. Kerry starts at another disadvantage. Both men will likely say something about Hurricane Jeanne, and it's going to be tough for Kerry to sound more sincere and significant. If Kerry seems to be overly formal from the start, he's in for a long night.
Next, there is the matter of sweat. Remember the saying, 'Never let 'em see you sweat'? It's important. Kerry had trouble at the DNC, and he looked gray and tired, sweating as he gave his nomination address. That speech alone hurt him in the polls. Imagine the same sweat, this time when he is asked a difficult question about Foreign Policy. The Kerry Team wanted to keep the auditorium chilled to around 68 degrees, but the Bush team got that idea nixed. The temperature will be "best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature according to industry standards for the entire debate", which doesn't mean a heat lamp, but it does mean that the stage will be warmer than the audience, and no, President Bush is not likely to sweat, certainly not the way Kerry might. If Kerry's team worries too much about the temperature, that might affect their makeup decisions, which can also work to the President's favor (remember Al "dayglo" Gore in 2000?). Yes, it's a detail, but those things add up, and this is one more that goes into the President's column.
Finally, the last clue about Thursday's debate, is the way each candidate sets the stage the week before. Both candidates know they need to speak the same way going into the debate, as they will on stage Thursday night. For the President, that has meant his speech to the United Nations, his meeting with Prime Minister Allawi, and other public statements consistent with his announced policy. For Senator Kerry, that has meant claiming Bush was in the "wrong war", even though he also finally agreed that he would have invaded Iraq in the same circumstances as Bush faced, it has meant saying Prime Minister Allawi "is obviously contradicting his own statement of a few days ago", in spite of his claim that he would improve American cooperation with foreign leaders, of whom Allawi should certainly hold Kerry's respect, instead of contempt, and it has meant claiming that a Bush re-election would mean reinstating the Draft, even though the only sponsors or supporters for the bill are Democrats. Such confusion immediately before the debate, is not a sign that John Kerry has a consistent message to send or keep.
To get back into the contest, Kerry needs to score big on Thursday. But the same man who went to Michigan to praise Buckeye football, and stood on Vince Lombardi's hallowed home turf to praise "Lambert" Field, has lined up behind the tackle to take the snap. President Bush wins this one.