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Debate Set to Sharpen Bush-Kerry Contrast

Times Staff Writers

With so much at stake, they don’t want polemics, they want plans. Instead of dirt, they want details about how President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry would make America stronger, safer and healthier, and how the two men vying for the nation’s highest office would extricate the country from a troubling war.

Voters here and across the country want to hear all of this tonight, when the two rivals face off in the first of three presidential debates, which could go a long way toward deciding whether Bush can solidify his upper hand in the contest or Kerry can capitalize on persistent voter unease about the incumbent.

With polls showing the contest fluid, the debate has become a critical juncture in the race for the White House -- the first chance for voters to hear the two men’s views at length, side by side and unfiltered. And as they arrived in Coral Gables, Fla., on Wednesday, the campaigns jockeyed to lower expectations about how the men would perform.

But in nearly two dozen interviews across this Midwestern battleground state, many voters said they had little hope that a campaign pocked with nastiness could yield a debate of much substance tonight.

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“I want school funding. I can’t get any loans. I want them to talk to me about that. And the war -- I just want it to end. But they just keep sending troops over there,” said Iisha Heitman, 20, pulling the second leg of a split shift at Altoona’s Galaxy Coffee House and Laundry Room, where the debate will be shown on television.

“I’m looking for a plan on health benefits for everyone. These insurance companies are ridiculous,” said Andy Rieger, 20, who frames houses for a living and spends $260 a month on insurance premiums.

“I don’t listen much about the war. I don’t care about the war.”

It is voters like Heitman, a registered Republican who is still undecided, and Rieger, who leans toward Democrat Kerry but could change his mind, who will be the most important viewers of tonight’s 90-minute session, originating from the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

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Debate experts and political strategists on both sides say roughly 80% to 85% of those who tune in will be partisans looking for reasons to reinforce their existing belief that Kerry or Bush is the man best-suited for the White House.

Still, that leaves many millions who can be persuaded, and their judgments could make the difference in a race that both sides agree is too close to call with just about a month remaining.

The assigned topic of tonight’s discussion is foreign policy and national security, as Bush preferred. In return, the president agreed to debate Kerry two more times over the next two weeks, including one session -- with a town-hall-style format involving undecided voters -- that Bush initially balked at.

Purists point out that none of the sessions will be debates in the true sense of the word. The two campaigns have imposed several restrictions that minimize direct exchanges or free-form conversation.

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That is the way the candidates and their handlers prefer things; all are mindful of the dangers of a gaffe or an unscripted moment that undermines the hours of rehearsal and weeks of strategizing that go into each session.

“The ones that have been decisive are usually because of mistakes that were made,” said David Steinberg, a professor of communications and director of the University of Miami’s debate program. Vice President Al Gore lost support after heavy sighing four years ago, and President Gerald R. Ford was skewered and lost in 1976 after he asserted that Soviet-dominated Poland was free of communist influence.

Still, for their lack of spontaneity, the sessions starting tonight will likely prove some of the most noteworthy events of the prolonged campaign, given the expected size of the viewership and the stakes for the two candidates.

“This is the first time we’ll see them both on the same stage. And it’s the first time each of them has addressed a national audience since their conventions,” said Wayne Fields, a Washington University professor who has written extensively about presidential rhetoric.

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“That’s no small consideration, since most of the campaign has consisted of minute [TV news] segments based on sound bites to regional audiences.”

Most analysts agree that Kerry has the most on the line tonight, given Bush’s momentum since his nominating convention and his advantage in the polls.

“The debates are the best opportunity for Kerry to change the dynamics, which have not worked for him in the last six to eight weeks,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist who worked for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries. “If he can make this election about Bush, Bush in all likelihood will lose. If this election is about Kerry, then we’ve got a rougher row to hoe.”

Bush, in turn, is likely to continue efforts to undermine the Massachusetts senator’s credibility and cast the war in Iraq as part of a larger fight against worldwide terrorism.

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Arriving in Florida on Wednesday, the president toured a citrus grove in Lake Wales with his brother Gov. Jeb Bush to pledge that he would help the state’s struggling citrus industry recover from a series of storms. He plans to tour more hurricane-ravaged regions of the electoral-vote-rich state before the debate.

While Bush aides continued Wednesday to play up Kerry’s debating skills and downplay expectations of their own man, they were careful to note that the president was prepared. Bush “knows his positions. You don’t have to memorize something you believe in,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.

In an abbreviated campaign day Wednesday, Kerry appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in a previously taped interview in which he described his frequently quoted remark about voting for $87 billion in war funding before voting against it as “one of those inarticulate moments, late in the evening when I was dead-tired.”

The Kerry remark has been a signature line for months in campaign speeches and television ads by the Republicans, who have used it to argue that Kerry shifts positions for political gain and thus can’t be trusted to lead the nation in wartime. The same theme is likely to be reprised in tonight’s debate.

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Kerry voted for a Democratic version of the measure that would have rolled back Bush’s tax cuts for the highest-income Americans to finance the war, but he opposed the Republican version that left the tax cuts intact.

The Bush campaign mocked Kerry’s latest explanation of his votes, saying it was made in broad daylight, not late at night. “Perhaps his watch was on Paris time, where it was evening,” said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

But for many of those watching from Iowa, tactical considerations and political positioning are less important than the specifics they want to hear from each of the major party candidates.

At Cliff & Gina’s Runnells Inn, where a cheeseburger goes for $2.75, retired farmer Ray Ryerkerk, 84, said there was one thing he wanted to hear from Bush and Kerry: “How to get us out of that mess in the Middle East and admit the truth: that we’re in a religious war whether we want to be or not.”

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American troops shouldn’t be fighting in Iraq, he said, ruing “what this war is costing us.” But he said he didn’t blame the president. “Bush had no choice” but to take America to war, said Ryerkerk.

He supports the president and blames his predecessor, Bill Clinton, for the problems he faces in the Middle East.

Runnells’ Precinct 1 encompasses the map-speck town (population around 400) and its surrounding area, rolling hills of farmland.

Once a coal-mining hub, Runnells has a new subdivision bordered by corn fields, and is something of a bedroom community for Des Moines.

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Runnells’ Precinct 1 has been a good mirror of the state as a whole. Gore beat Bush by a mere five votes here in 2000, and captured the state’s electoral votes, winning by a margin of only 4,144. In 1996, Runnells backed Clinton by a 10.9 percentage-point margin; he won Iowa by 10.5 percentage points.

Jodi Boffeli, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom, said she would watch the debate tonight with her 13-year-old daughter, Molly. She’s looking for a little reinforcement of her plan to hold her nose and vote for Kerry.

“I’m a die-hard Democrat, but I’m not sold on John Kerry,” she said as she took a break from transplanting rhubarb plants to talk politics.

“I want to make sure he’s what he stands for. If he can’t win a debate against George Bush, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

First impressions

The first debate between the presidential candidates can reshape the campaign. In 1960, 1980 and 2000, the candidate who trailed in the Gallup Poll before the initial debate pulled ahead in the first Gallup Poll afterward and went on to win in November.Approval ratings before and after first debates

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*--* Before After +/- 1960 John F. Kennedy* 46 49 +3 Richard Nixon 47 46 -1 1976 Jimmy Carter* 51 51 0 Gerald R. Ford 36 40 +4 1980 Ronald Reagan* 42 46 +4 Jimmy Carter 45 43 -2 John Anderson 9 7 -2 Other/Undecided 4 4 0 1984 Ronald Reagan* 56 58 +2 Walter F. Mondale 39 38 -1 1988 George H.W. Bush* 49 47 -2 Michael Dukakis 41 42 +1 1992 George H.W. Bush 33 32 -1 Bill Clinton* 51 47 -4 Ross Perot 10 15 +5 Other/Undecided 6 6 0 1996 Bill Clinton* 54 55 +1 Bob Dole 36 34 -2 Ross Perot 5 6 +1 Other/Undecided 5 5 0 2000 Al Gore 49 41 -8 George W. Bush* 41 48 +7

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*Won presidencySources: Gallup Poll

La Ganga reported from Iowa and Barabak from San Francisco. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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