Kerry and Bush will be in the same room, but not ‘debating’ |

Kerry and Bush will be in the same room, but not ‘debating’

It’s primetime! It’s live! It’s the original reality television! It’s the presidential debates tonight at 7 p.m. with George Bush and John Kerry squaring off, mano a mano, in a no-holds-barred discussion of the issues of the day, issues that affect you! you! you! Tonight: the economy, education, health care. Be there!This first presidential “debate” airs from, sadly, Florida, a state recovering from a fourth hurricane in six weeks. Tonight’s “debate” is one of four, the next being a vice presidential “debate” between Richard Cheney (four, count ’em, four heart attacks since 2000), and John (I’m not Dan Quayle) Edwards on Oct. 5. Kerry and Bush again take the stage Oct. 8, with a “town meeting” format and unscripted questions, and a final “debate” scheduled Oct. 13 on economic and domestic policy. The number of debates is a victory for Kerry, who wants as much face time with the president as possible, and the order of debates a victory for Bush, who considers a “debate” on foreign policy his strong suit.

Polls have shown that these “debates” do matter to undecided voters, and thus in an election too close to call the “debates” will matter to Kerry and Bush. One reason the “debates” don’t change more minds is the format; they are debates only in that both people are in the same room. While the moderator (Jim Lehrer of PBS) is supposed to allow direct questioning of one candidate by the other, he’s not to allow it to go on too long.Most of the “debate” will be 60-second expositions by the candidates that are scripted but informative – if you know nothing about the candidates.However, these “debates,” like the television coverage of them, are less about information than about perception and feel, perception of who won and who lost, and feel by the voters of whether they liked and/or trusted one over the other. In a true debate, a point-counterpoint, all-assertions-challenged scenario, give Kerry the edge. Take jobs, for example. On the campaign trail Bush always claims that the economy is growing and jobs are being created. This is true provided voters only look at the last year. Bush will in fact, over the four years of his term, be the only president since the Great Depression to manage an economy that had a net loss of jobs.

The Democrats are, of course, hoping that the millions without jobs or health care will recognize that and vote.In Bush’s favor is that in a “debate” setting as we’ll see tonight, he’s good, very good. He’s self-deprecating and he keeps it simple, and he’s more knowledgeable than his opponents give him credit for.In a Texas gubernatorial “debate” with Democrat Ann Richards, a woman capable of verbally gutting opponents like fish, Bush won over voters not because he scored more “debate” points, but because voters could relate to him and not to the better informed, more logical Richards, in the same way John Kennedy won over television viewers in 1960 against the better informed, more logical Richard Nixon. The only “debate” Bush ever lost, and badly, was during the 2000 Republican campaign when, after calling into question John McCain’s war record (yes, we’ve been down this road before), Bush found himself sitting next to McCain in an open forum where McCain roasted Bush. McCain, who had fought in Vietnam, been shot down over Hanoi and served time as a prisoner of war, wasn’t going to let Bush, who used political connections to get into the National Guard and dodge war service, get away with calling his (McCain’s) war record into doubt.

So in tonight’s debate, don’t expect Bush to raise Kerry’s war record, because while Kerry came out of Vietnam with a new perspective on war and some medals, Bush came out of the National Guard with nothing but two fillings.Tonight President Bush will try and look, well, presidential, and John Kerry will do his best to call into question every assertion made by the president. If you’re looking for sparks, though, then watch the vice presidential debate, between a mean guy and a nice guy with only one shot at a national audience. Either way, remember Oct. 4 is your last chance to register to vote. This election will be decided by a small margin of voters, so if nothing else, let’s hope tonight’s debate will get you to vote, one way or the other.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at

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