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Bush, Kerry set for crucial first debate
Updated: 2004-10-01 08:37

U.S. President Bush and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry prepared on Thursday for a security policy showdown expected to focus on Iraq, where 41 people died in one of the most violent days in the post-war insurgency.

Stand-ins stand behind podiums on the stage for the first presidential debate, at the University of Miami, September 30, 2004. U.S. President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry give voters their first chance to size up the two White House candidates side by side when they square off. [Reuters]

The 90-minute, televised session on the University of Miami campus starting at 9 p.m. will give voters their first chance to compare the candidates directly. It could play a big role in tipping a White House race that most polls show is close but leaning increasingly toward Bush.

Polls indicate as many as one-quarter of American voters could be swayed by the debates, which often provide insights into not only the candidates' views but also their demeanor and personalities.

The session will focus on the war in Iraq, where the U.S. death toll now stands at 1,055, and the war on terror.

A series of car bombs across Iraq on Thursday killed 48 people, 34 of them children who were rushing to collect sweets from American troops in Baghdad. Two U.S. soldiers died -- one in a car bombing and one in a rocket attack.

A statement apparently from the group led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said it was behind the attacks.

The Iraq war and counterterrorism policy have dominated the campaign for months, and Kerry promised to confront Bush.

"George Bush is scaring America. He's talking terror every day and people see terrible images of what's happening in the world, and they're real -- people being beheaded, the acts of terror in that school in Russia," Kerry said in an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America."

"I know how to fight a more effective war on terror, and by the end of this campaign, America will make that decision, and that's why I'm going to win," Kerry said, adding he was looking forward to the encounter.

"He's a very clever debater. He's won all his debates," Kerry said of Bush. "The president has been, as they say down in Texas, all hat and no cattle and I'm going to show it."

Bush, on a morning trip to Stuart, Florida, for a survey of recent hurricane damage, gave a thumbs up and a smile when asked about the debate by a reporter, but did not reply.

"People in Florida and many other states are coming through a trying time," Bush said as he stopped by a Red Cross relief center. He promised the federal government would work with state and local authorities to provide disaster relief.

Bush is expected to hammer Kerry for shifting his views on the war, while Kerry has condemned Bush for making America less safe with his rush to invade Iraq without international support and his failure to plan adequately for the war's aftermath.

Bush campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said Kerry's toughest challenge would be making a direct connection with voters. "One of John Kerry's big problems is nobody thinks he believes what he says," she said.

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, said Bush's debate preparations were "long and steady instead of a crash course." Bush, he said, "knows his positions. You don't have to memorize something you believe in."

Huge Stakes

With many polls showing voters still trust Bush more to handle key issues, including Iraq, the debate could be Kerry's last chance to turn around his image and convince Americans he is up to the job.

"It's clearly an opportunity for Senator Kerry, he's standing there side by side as an equal to the president," Kerry adviser Mike McCurry said, describing the session as "a chance to make another first impression."

Kerry aides said the Massachusetts senator would benefit from being able to challenge the president directly over his choices for Iraq and his plans for the country's future.

"George Bush has run a campaign that's like a fact-free zone, an evidence-free zone," said Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.

The candidates will stand at podiums in front of a moderator, television journalist Jim Lehrer, on a stage constructed in the center of the university's basketball arena.

They get 90 seconds to answer each question and 30 seconds to comment on the opponent's answer -- time limits that could cripple the sometimes rambling Kerry or help him be more succinct.

Up to 50 million people are expected to watch the first and most crucial of the debates. Audiences typically dwindle for the later encounters and the vice presidential debate, which will be next Tuesday.

The two candidates have long and successful debate histories but starkly different styles. Bush usually sticks to a simple message, often lifted from his stump speech, and Kerry wanders more freely, although often into a verbal dead end.

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