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JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS

Kerry and Bush Prepare for Tonight's First Presidential Debate

Aired September 30, 2004 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: Ready to rumble. George Bush and John Kerry are just hours away from round one of their debate series.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to have an opportunity to talk about the issues important to all Americans.

ANNOUNCER: Before the presidential candidates go head-to-head, two of their campaign top guns will give us a sense of what to expect tonight.

The hunt for bin Laden. We'll follow up on a search that's likely to be a major topic of the debate.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Now, live from the University of Miami, site of the first presidential debate, JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us here in Miami.

Whether or not you follow politics closely, you don't need us to tell you that the presidential candidates have a lot riding on their lead-off debate here at the University of Miami. But we can help you sort through the pre-event spin and give you a better sense of what to look and listen for tonight.

We begin with John Kerry's debate strategy and the stakes for him tonight.

CNN's Frank Buckley is here at the debate site -- hi, Frank.

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Judy.

We're told that Senator Kerry in morning spent most of the day in his hotel suite with family members and staff members doing a little bit of Q&A, no mock debate or anything at that level, but just studying over the issues once again. We finally caught a brief glimpse of the senator as he was leaving the hotel in Bal Harbour on his way here to the debate site for his technical walk-through.

Of course, we weren't able to videotape the walk-through per one of agreements in the 32-page memorandum. Senator Kerry arrived here in Florida last night, Florida, of course, the site of 2000 recount and one of the hottest contests this year. And he came here after three days of debate prep in Wisconsin. Here is what he told his supporters at the rally last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: Tomorrow night, we're going to have an opportunity to talk about the issues important to all Americans. And here is what I'm asking you to do. I'm asking you to go out and talk to your friends. I'm asking you to go to your neighborhoods. I'm asking you to make these next 30-plus days the most important days of your life, because they are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY: And Senator Kerry's aides say that he will do his best to try to put President Bush on the defensive, specifically about his management of the war in Iraq. He will try to convince voters that he could be a better commander in chief.

Here is what he said to Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY: No president can say you can stop any terrorist attack. No president can say that. But I will make America safer than George Bush has in any number of ways, on homeland security, in our relationships in the world, by paying attention to nuclear proliferation, by dealing more effectively with Iraq and with Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY: Now aides tell us that for the rest of the day, Senator Kerry plans to relax, just get some rest. He's going to have dinner with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. No mock debates or anything like that. We're told he's already had four full mock debates.

And remarkably in the past year and a half since he's been running, he's engaged in 43 debates and/or candidate forums during that period of time. So, as the senator said himself, if you're not ready for a debate by this time, maybe you shouldn't be running for president -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: But Frank, even with all that, at the last minute, there has arisen a disagreement between the two camps over lights on the lectern, signaling how long the candidates can speak. Where does all that stand?

BUCKLEY: Well, there is a disagreement over these lights that are placed apparently on the podium. It was left unspecified as to where these lights would be in the room. They were supposed to be visible to both the candidates and the viewing audience. These are the lights that tell you your time is almost up, your time is up.

And apparently they were placed right on the podium, the Kerry campaign not happy about that. Mike McCurry saying it was very distracting when they saw that this morning. They've asked the Debate Commission to remove them. The Kerry campaign saying that these look like game show lights. But apparently, the Debate Commission right now not planning to budge off of this.

This isn't something, we're told, that's going to put a stop to the debate from the Kerry side, but it is something that they do want to continue to try to work on to get those lights off before the debate begins.

WOODRUFF: I saw the Associated Press quoting one Kerry aide as talking about bringing a screwdriver. But maybe they're backing off. All right, Frank Buckley, thank you very much.

Well, now we turn to President Bush. He's been trying to make the most of the hours before the debate by using his role as the incumbent to his best advantage.

From Miami, here is our White House correspondent Dana Bash.

Hello, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Judy.

Well, you know, the Bush campaign pre-debate spinners said one thing that we should all look for tonight is whether or not John Kerry can appeal to the American people, whether or not he is somebody you can laugh with and cry with. Well, it just so happens that those, at least in part, are some of the images we saw of the president today.

You mentioned he used the power of the incumbency. He once again, for the second day in a row, talked to some victims of the hurricanes that have ravaged this state. He went to a federal aid area. He hugged one victim. He was there with his brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of this state.

Now, as much as Bush officials talk about style, the president has, they think, an asset and even an advantage over John Kerry on that issue. They also understand that substance tonight is absolutely key, particularly because it's going to be primarily about the war that has defined his presidency.

Now, in terms of Mr. Bush, we are told that he did not have any formal debate practice, just like John Kerry. He did give a thumb's up and a wink and a nod to reporters who asked how he feels about tonight. He did or he is planning at this hour to have to walk- through of the debate area. He also, Judy, was given, we're told, some transcripts of the latest information and comments of John Kerry, the interview that he did with ABC.

As you know, the president has been reading all kinds of transcripts, even was given audiotapes of John Kerry of his debates when he did his preparation for this debate tonight. The question on Iraq, the way the president is preparing, as can you imagine, is to try to keep on keeping on with the strategy that they've had all along, which is to try to make this about the challenger. Does John Kerry have what it takes to be the leader? What kind of plan does he have in Iraq?

That is the strategy, to sort of keep it on the issue of John Kerry, whether or not he would be better off than President Bush. But they also are well aware, Judy, that John Kerry's campaign and the senator is hoping to use this forum to really remind voters that this is the president's war. And he made some decisions that perhaps were questionable and are questionable. And that's something that he's going to try to bring up today.

These are lines, at least defense lines, that the president has been practicing. He's going to say that he made some adjustments, but turn it around, as he usually does, to a question of leadership -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Preparation on top of preparation. Dana, thank you very much.

Well, independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader is also here in Miami, even though he's been excluded from the debate tonight. He is not going to be taking part. At a news conference today, Nader took swipes at the two major political parties and at the Presidential Debate Commission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the will of the people is being denied by a private corporation under the control of the two major parties that decides who can and who cannot reach tens of millions of Americans every four years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Nader is continuing a four-day swing through Florida, one of the 32 states where he has qualified for the November 2 ballot.

Well, we have some polls to show you, a new round of them beginning right here in Florida. Our new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup survey shows President Bush leading Senator Kerry by nine points among likely Florida voters and by five points among the wider pool of registered voters.

Checking now some other showdown states, in Pennsylvania, Kerry has a three-point lead among likely voters in our new poll. Kerry has a four-point edge over Bush among registered voters in Pennsylvania. It is even tighter in the state of Michigan. A new "Detroit Free Press" survey shows Bush with a two-point lead among likely voters. But Kerry is ahead by two points in the poll of register voters.

Another sign today that New Jersey may be a showdown state after all. A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of likely voters shows Kerry just one point ahead of George Bush in a state that Al Gore won handily four years ago.

And finally, the big picture. A new "Los Angeles Times" polled nationally shows Bush five points ahead of John Kerry among likely voters across the country. Bush leads by four points in "The L.A. Times" survey of registered voters.

Well, President Bush is going to be working to hold on to and widen his advantage in the polls when he steps on to that debate stage tonight.

Joining me now from outside the debate hall here at the University, Bush/Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot.

So, Marc Racicot, do you have any butterflies and does your candidate have any butterflies?

MARC RACICOT, BUSH-CHENEY CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: Well, I think the candidate is ready, to be very honest with you, Judy.

It is a matter of comfort I think to him that he knows the American people know him well. His positions have been clearly stated. He's announced his vision, where he wants to lead the country. He knows what he's about. I'm certainly that probably there is a bit of nervous energy that courses through the veins of virtually anyone that would be performing in this kind of atmosphere.

But I think he's very comfortable and looking very much forward to the opportunity to allow the American people to make this comparison between the two candidates.

WOODRUFF: If you look at polls, John Kerry is going into this debate the underdog. How much harder does that make the president's job?

RACICOT: You know, I don't think that he calculates it in way, Judy.

I think the bottom line is that he's always consistent. He knows what he believes. He knows where he wants to go. He knows where he would like to lead the country, if the people of this nation choose him to serve for another four years. And so, it doesn't matter who the opposition might be or what might be brought up or what the dynamics are.

I think his perspective is always the same. He wants the chance to be able to describe his vision, to recall where we've been as a nation, as a family of interests across this country, and then to talk about where we go in the future, and to allow the American people to make the comparison between the two candidates. And I think he's very comfortable with the American people at the end of the day making that decision. He knows he doesn't own the presidency and that the American people do, and that they'll make this particular decision.

So, I think he's just comfortable always approaching the situation in virtually the same way.

WOODRUFF: Still, with all the good news in this new national poll and in these state polls, Marc Racicot, you do have in that "Los Angeles Times" poll 52 percent of respondents still saying they disapprove of how the president is handling Iraq, 51 percent saying Iraq was not worth going to war over. How does the president overcome that? We know, because John Kerry's people have said it, he's going to try to put the president on the defensive on Iraq.

RACICOT: Well, it's a very sad circumstance that have been discussed at least by part of the Kerry campaign when they've talked about trying to take advantage and build upon and try to exhibit in some extraordinary fashion the chaos and difficulty and grief that comes along with the performance of this responsibility in Iraq.

But the president will talk about it, I'm pretty certain the same terms that he always has, and that is that this is about making certain that our freedom, the family security of our families here in this country is preserved. And we can either take this burden on now, even though it's a mighty, mighty difficult chore and filled with all kinds of extraordinary responsibility, or we can pass it on to our children, our grandchildren, those who might have to do it at another time, when it's exponentially more difficult.

I think the American people understand that. I think they know that it's incredibly hard, it's incredibly difficult, and we grieve every loss, but that, at the end of the day, like those who have gone before us, we simply have to rise to this challenge. So, I think is what the president will talk about with the American people tonight.

WOODRUFF: You don't mean to suggest that -- you said a minute ago you don't -- it would be too bad if John Kerry tried to take advantage of the tragedy coming out of Iraq. What exactly are you suggesting?

RACICOT: No, I think that when he approaches it, it's with -- even though we must properly pay respect and be grateful for all of the sacrifice that's been involved in the men and women who serve this nation and their families preserving our freedom,

John Kerry is a defeatist. He talks about retreat and defeat. He talks about it in very negative terms. Some his aides yesterday reportedly want to focus upon nothing but on the chaos and the difficulty. And clearly this is a difficult assignment. We would never set about to seek this opportunity. But you have to respond with courage and conviction when America is confronted.

But Mark Racicot, isn't all that fair game to discuss? Because the policy in Iraq is President Bush's policy.

RACICOT: Oh, there is no question it's a fair issue to discuss. What I'm saying is that, at the end of the day, I believe the American people, as they always have, will rise and perform the duty that we have as a generation, as a nation, to preserve the safety and freedom and capacity to live in peace in this country.

That's what this is about. Most certainly, there is an intersection with the interests of all the entire world and peace- loving people everyplace. But what this is about is about the peace and safety and family security of the American people for the next 50 to 100 years. WOODRUFF: All right, Mark Racicot, chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign, putting it in context -- Mark Racicot, thank you very much.

RACICOT: Thank you, Judy. It's a pleasure.

WOODRUFF: Thank you.

The other side of the debate is coming up next. I'll talk to Kerry campaign senior adviser Joe Lockhart about tonight's face-off and the hurdles for the Democrats.

Plus, abortion and other controversial social issues. We'll tell you how Bush and Kerry compare in the battle over values.

And later, it may not be a Mars/Venus thing, but women may view tonight's debate differently from men. How can the candidates play to female voters?

With 33 days until the election, this is INSIDE POLITICS, the place for campaign news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: A few minutes ago, we heard from Bush campaign chairman Mark Racicot about this debate coming up tonight.

Here with me now, Kerry campaign senior adviser Joe Lockhart.

First off, this new dispute today over the light on the lectern, what's this about and what's the problem?

JOE LOCKHART, KERRY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Well, the White House has been obsessed with putting lights around the room. I think somehow they think it's going to distract from the answers or distract John Kerry. It won't distract John Kerry. It's going to make it look a little bit more like a game show than a presidential debate. But you know what? We're going to work this out. Everything is going to be fine.

WOODRUFF: But if it's not going to distract him, then what's the big fuss?

LOCKHART: Well, the big fuss is, they've been pulling a lot of things at the last minute. And they are the White House, but we did negotiate this in good faith.

And listen, this is being done at a level so far away from John Kerry. He's got no issue here. He's worried about performing as well as he can and taking his case and making his case.

WOODRUFF: All right, let's talk about the polls, new numbers out today in some states that one would have thought the Democrats wouldn't be having any trouble in, New Jersey, Michigan, the president even ahead in one poll. How high is the mountain that John Kerry's got to climb tonight?

LOCKHART: I don't think it's that high as all. Our polls show this race to be a neck-and-neck dead heat.

I think there is somehow some conventional wisdom out there that this has become someplace where John Kerry's got to change the fundamental dynamic of the race. The fundamental dynamic of this race is, it's tied. There are three debates. The first one is on the subject that George Bush wanted to talk about, foreign policy. We think John Kerry is going to do very well. He's going to make the case of what he would do differently and, just as importantly, just what a mess George Bush has gotten this country into.

But there are three debase. There is still plenty of time here. This idea that somehow this is make or break is just silly.

WOODRUFF: I just talked to Mark Racicot, the chairman of their campaign. He said, I hope John Kerry doesn't try to take advantage of the tragic situation in Iraq, the deaths in Iraq. Is that part of what John Kerry is going to try to do tonight?

LOCKHART: Well, Listen, I think that we should take his hopes with a grain of salt.

What's going on, on the ground right now in Iraq, no matter how the president tries to deny it, is chaos. It's a mess. And it's a situation that's getting worse. And this is a direct result of policy decisions made by this president. So, it is completely legitimate. The American public would be disappointed if we didn't have a full debate about the policy in Iraq.

Now, the president can stand up and say that things are getting better and we're making progress. But we all watch TV. We know that more people are dying every month, both Iraqis and Americans. The attacks are up. The situation on the ground has gotten worse. Secretary of State -- Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld in the last few days has admitted things are getting worse. That's going to be part of the debate.

WOODRUFF: But Joe Lockhart, setting policy aside, troubling -- what's coming out of these polls that we're seeing, poll after poll showing President Bush leading John Kerry by many points when it comes to who is a more decisive leader, who would be a stronger leader.

How does John Kerry turn an impression like that around in one or two or three debates? That's something that it takes time to build.

LOCKHART: Well, I'd say watch the debate. People are getting information on this campaign in 30-second ads and sound bites. This is going to be a chance for John Kerry to stand next to the president and give the American public a chance to say, does he have what it takes to be president? Does he have the strength and the wisdom, the judgment?

We know he does, but he's got to demonstrate that tonight. And the second thing which is just as important is, this is a president that makes an excuse for everything. He's always got an excuse. Nothing is ever his responsibility. He's going to be held accountable for his record tonight, and if he tries to duck and dive and slide, John Kerry is going to hold him accountable. And that's what the American public deserves in a debate like this.

WOODRUFF: Last question. These rules tonight, are they a problem? Are they a hindrance because it's so restrictive?

LOCKHART: Listen, I think the president will have to answer why his team was so restrictive, why they wanted a avoid a free-wheeling debate. We think the rules will work fine.

John Kerry will make a strong case for what he'll do differently, particularly in Iraq. And the president will have to answer on why he had to have every last rule to his liking.

WOODRUFF: Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to John Kerry, thank you very much. Good to see you.

LOCKHART: Thanks, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Appreciate your coming by. Thank you.

Well, coming up on INSIDE POLITICS, we'll tell you where Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, stands on this presidential election.

And media observers have some advice for reporters covering tonight's debate.

Stay there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: It is what many see as the biggest failure in the war on terror. Three years after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden is still at large. Next up, a look at the possible fireworks tonight over the hunt for the head of al Qaeda.

And stay with CNN throughout the evening for complete coverage of the presidential debate. I'll be joined tonight by Wolf Blitzer, Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper and the rest of CNN's election team. Our prime-time coverage kicks off at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

(STOCK MARKET UPDATE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(SHOUTING)

WOODRUFF: A little excitement here at the University of Miami, as the Kerry camp and the Bush camp compete for attention just hours ahead of this debate.

Well, President Bush visits hurricane damage in Florida just hours before tonight's face-off, Senator Kerry keeping a lower profile since arriving in the Sunshine State, as he prepares for tonight's showdown.

Welcome back to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Judy Woodruff, live from the University of Miami, site of the first presidential debate.

Iraq, of course, is expected to dominate tonight's debate on foreign policy. And the deadly events in Baghdad just today illustrate the challenges facing American policy. At least 41 people, including 34 children, were killed when two car bombs exploded during a ceremony at the opening of a new sewage plant.

In London, meantime, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says he's not taking sides in the upcoming U.S. election. He said he appreciates all the support that Iraq has received from the current administration. But he also noted that when the U.S. was led by a Democratic president, it had what he called a very positive attitude toward the struggles of the Iraqi people.

One of John Kerry's criticisms of the war in Iraq is that it distracted the U.S. from what he says should have been a bigger priority: the capture of Osama bin Laden. CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has more on the search for bin Laden and why that search has yet to succeed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John Kerry calls it a catastrophic decision by President Bush to rely on Afghan troops instead of American soldiers to go after Osama bin Laden during a critical time in 2001 when it appeared he might have been trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora.

KERRY: Instead of using U.S. forces, the best-trained military in the world, the most capable, the most willing to go out and capture Osama bin Laden, the president outsourced the job to Afghan warlords who let Osama bin Laden slip away.

MCINTYRE: The Pentagon has long argued there was no firm evidence that bin Laden was actually surrounded back in December of 2001, as was widely believed. And disputes the idea that more U.S. troops who were unfamiliar with the terrain would have greatly increased the chances of success. As far back as 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the second-guessing as simplistic and ridiculed critics who questioned whether the Pentagon's strategy was flawed.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I wouldn't be able to answer a question like that. And it impresses me that others can from their pinnacles of relatively modest knowledge.

MCINTYRE: Kerry's broader criticism is that, by picking a fight with Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan.

KERRY: The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, al Qaeda. George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority.

MCINTYRE: But in his book, "American Soldier," retired General Tommy Franks, who drew up war plans for both Iraq and Afghanistan, writes, "President Bush had stressed his concern that we maintain momentum in Afghanistan."

In response, Frank says he told Bush, "We will stay focused," and argued, "Our mission in Afghanistan never suffered." Now, three years later, the U.S. intelligence community believes bin Laden is alive and in Pakistan. And while Pakistani forces are taking the lead in the hunt, some 14,000 U.S. troops are battling al Qaeda and Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MCINTYRE: Earlier this year, a U.S. general who was taking command in Afghanistan issued an optimistic projection that bin Laden would be captured this year. He was immediately admonished privately by his superiors at the Pentagon for making such a statement, and they cautioned here that it was wishful thinking. It's turned out now that months have gone by and they still haven't found him that that wishful thinking was in fact a more accurate description -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Jamie, you mentioned General Tommy Franks expressing reservations about changing the focus, more of the focus to Iraq. Now, though, Tommy Franks is supporting President Bush. Has there been a change in his thinking and those over the two or three years since?

MCINTYRE: No. Franks in his book says -- he argues that the effort in Iraq did not detract from the effort in Afghanistan, that if they needed more troops or thought that was the way to go in Afghanistan, they would have had them. And he says that President Bush supported him in what he needed. So, basically, he comes down in support of the president's argument that the war in Iraq did not detract from the effort in Afghanistan.

WOODRUFF: OK, Jamie. Thank you for clarifying that. And thank you -- thank you for that report. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Thank you.

Well, two guests join me now to talk more about tonight's debate. Adam Clymer is in Washington. He's the director of the Annenberg Election Survey. David Birdsell is in New York. He's on the faculty at Baruch College, and also co-authored a book about presidential debates.

David Birdsell, to you first. How much of what goes on tonight will be because of what the candidates say and how much because of how they say it?

PROFESSOR DAVID BIRDSELL, BARUCH COLLEGE: Well, it's's combination. Certainly, a number of things the candidates need to get across clearly in front of a television audience in a convincing way. John Kerry, for example, has to make a succinct, compelling statement about his foreign policy positions and to contrast those effectively with the Bush administration. But there is always, no matter what each candidate has to do, a question of the person behind the policy and whether the person has the vision and the empathy necessary to carry out a policy and sell to the American public.

WOODRUFF: Adam Clymer, how much of it -- is it just half of one and half of the other, how they say it and half what they say?

ADAM CLYMER, DIRECTOR, ANNENBERG ELECTION SURVEY: Well, I think it's become more and more how they say it. And in large part, because a lot of political reporters have confused themselves with being drama critics.

I mean, I can't dismiss that sort of thing, but people ought to pay attention to what they say, to see if it sounds like it makes sense, not to whether Bush smirks or Kerry looks down on him, or any of the theatrics of the event. These are really very important issues. They're not simple. But I think it's important for both of these candidates to try to tell us how they intend to get out of this situation, to bring it to a conclusion.

Our polling shows that majorities of the public doesn't think either of them has a clear plan. Slightly more think Bush has one. But it's not an impressive number.

WOODRUFF: David Birdsell, what are you going to be looking for tonight? You've studied these debates, and you must have your own take on this. We've heard what the candidates are looking for, what the pundits -- what are you looking for?

BIRDSELL: I think the central political dynamic is going to be whether the Bush administration -- specifically whether the president can walk out tonight with relatively limited news out of this debate. If that happens, it helps him because, of course, he's ahead in the polls right now, and it invites less scrutiny of the policies that he's trying to put in place.

John Kerry has to get past the examination of John Kerry's records and his own statements and try to project forward to what he'd do as president and put the focus back on what George Bush has done on president -- as president, what's happening on the ground in Iraq. Those are critical dynamics of this debate, and I think that, again, what I said earlier about Kerry's ability to form a succinct statement of his policy goals and where he would take the country, and as Adam said, differently from where the Bush administration would, that's absolutely critical to hear tonight.

It's going to be hard given the very, very tight format and the 67 -- 60-second responses that are available to these two candidates.

WOODRUFF: Adam Clymer, we're starting to hear so much about how we haven't really known who really won these debates until 48 hours later, when the press got finished examining it. Do you think we're going to know tonight, or is it going to take some time for everything to settle out?

CLYMER: Well, I think it ultimately takes time. And what I hope is that the time is spent focusing on -- for example, if Kerry says, "If I get elected, I'll get various foreign countries that haven't been willing to send troops in to send troops in to help us out," focus on whether that's plausible, whether foreign correspondents in those countries think there is any chance that that would happen. If Bush says, you know, "Everything is going swimmingly and things are moving forward," well, examine that. Don't examine -- don't set it as tests for the candidates. Think of it as a test for good reporting.

WOODRUFF: And Adam Clymer, one other -- the same question I had for David Birdsell a minute ago, Adam. What are you looking for tonight?

CLYMER: Well, I think the most -- I think it's more important for Kerry to be able to convince people that he could handle -- handle foreign policy well. The public is not happy with Iraq. The majority think Bush is not handling it well and think that the situation there was not worth going to war over.

Fifty-six percent of the public think America is less respected than it used to be before Bush became president. But plainly, they're not convinced that switching to Kerry would be a change for better. That's his opportunity. That's Bush's fear.

WOODRUFF: David Birdsell, just curious, where are you going to be watching this debate from?

BIRDSELL: I'm going to be at television studio in New York.

WOODRUFF: OK. And Adam, where are you watching from?

CLYMER: Well, I'll be at home. And I may listen to it on the radio so as not to be distracted.

WOODRUFF: OK. All right. Adam Clymer, David Birdsell, thank you both. Good to see you. We appreciate it.

International affairs, as we've been telling you, is going to be the topic tonight. But when the campaign focus returns to the domestic front, contentious issues like abortion and same-sex marriage begin to occupy the spotlight. Our national correspondent, Bob Franken, has more in our continuing series "They Have Issues."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To some degree, each of the candidates is leading not just a campaign, but a moral crusade.

GEORGE W. BUSH (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The culture of this country is changing from one that has said, "If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else," to a culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life.

FRANKEN: His supporters see President Bush as the bulwark against so much that is morally reprehensible. His detractors see him as the leader of the self-righteous whose time has come and gone.

KERRY: We will not turn the clock back in this country. FRANKEN: The differences are stark. On abortion, for instance...

BUSH: We stand for a culture of life in which every person matters and every person counts.

KERRY: I believe the right of privacy is a constitutional right. I believe it is a right -- and let me say, importantly, and I think all of you know this, protecting the right of privacy is not pro- abortion. It is pro-choice, pro the rights of women to be able to control...

FRANKEN: In the related stem cell issue, Bush lined up with the so-called right to life advocates when he imposed strict limits on federal funding. Kerry favors wider research.

As for gay marriage, no question about the president's political stand. Not only does he oppose gay marriage, but he favors a constitutional amendment that would ban it.

Kerry is against the constitutional amendment. At the same time, he says he's against gay marriage. These issues hit the nerve of a country that polls show almost evenly divided over who best represents the values of voters.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: And both candidates insist they are not extreme, but the debate over values can be. Because, Judy, these are issues that inspire passion and sometimes prejudice, but rarely compromise.

WOODRUFF: Now, Bob, one more in your series tomorrow on these issues. Tell us what you've got in store for us on Friday.

FRANKEN: Well, usually these are the issues that cause the most discussion, because they involve so many people. They're the issues for the young and the old, education and Social Security. They've been subordinated a little bit in this campaign, but they're issues that are really close to home for the people who will be making the decisions on where their vote will go.

WOODRUFF: All right. Bob Franken, tomorrow his fifth installment in "They've Got Issues."

Thanks a lot.

You can find much more on the major issues in this election on our Web site. Go to cnn.com/issues for a detailed look at where the candidates stand.

Up next, Bay Buchanan and Donna Brazile tell us what women want and what women want to hear from the candidates. INSIDE POLITICS continues right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) WOODRUFF: It's not just the candidates facing off, it is their supporters. Yes, Bush-Cheney supporters and Kerry-Edwards supporters trying to outshout each other here at the University of Miami, very close to where we are, broadcasting live on this day of the big debate.

Joining me now from Washington, former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. And from Amarillo, Texas, Bay Buchanan, president of American Cause.

All right. Let's go to Amarillo first, Bay. What is the job of President Bush tonight? What does he need to do?

BAY BUCHANAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CAUSE: I believe there is two basic things he needs to do. First and foremost, is to be very presidential, in command, comfortable in that position, in charge, and not to take anything personally that might be attacked, but to handle it with some real class.

And secondly, a sense of humor, because I think a lot of Americans, most Americans, like to vote for somebody that they like. And he has that. That's his to win on against John Kerry. John Kerry will be much, I think, harsher, and people would like to somebody they can like, who they feel trust and faith in as their commander in chief.

WOODRUFF: Donna, John Kerry will be harsher? What does he have to do tonight?

DONNA BRAZILE, FMR. GORE CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I think he needs to remind the American people not only about who he is, because there has been a whole bunch of lies told since the last time they probably saw him, but he needs to, you know, tell the American people what he believes in and remind them that under this president, this failed presidency, this country is now no better off than we were four years ago. So, I think John Kerry is up to the task. He knows that George Bush is a terrific debater, and he'll be prepared tonight to defend his ground and make Bush defend what he's been doing over the last four years.

BUCHANAN: You know, Judy.

WOODRUFF: I just want to clarify what I said. I was just going to say, when I said John Kerry would be harsher, I meant that as a question, picking up on what Bay said.

But Bay, go ahead.

BUCHANAN: I believe that John Kerry has to go further than what Donna just said. George Bush is winning this, he's ahead, he's coming in very strong in this debate. His game has to be thrown off. If he's allowed to continue to look as strong as he is right now, then he's going to win the whole thing.

So, what Kerry has to do is he has to attack. He has to challenge and he has to try to throw George Bush off his game so he makes mistakes. Because if George Bush doesn't make a mistake, if he just ties this debate, George Bush is going to win this election.

BRAZILE: Well, I agree, Bay that...

WOODRUFF: Donna, you don't agree?

BRAZILE: No, I agree that Kerry has to get him off his game. But he doesn't have to be harsh, he doesn't have to attack, he doesn't have to be a caricature of George Bush, who has been attacking, attacking, attacking.

But what John Kerry has to do is to tell the American people what he would do as president and to remind the American people of the mistakes and the failures of this administration. If he can do that with a smile, I think John Kerry will succeed and win in this debate and win in the election.

WOODRUFF: Let's talk about women voters. Both of you know the polls are showing John Kerry's advantage has slipped among women voters. The latest poll we saw showed that he's just up five points among women.

Bay, what -- what does that mean for this debate? How does President Bush appeal to women, and how does he get -- continue to get the better of John Kerry if that's what's been going on?

BUCHANAN: And this is just terrific news for the president that he's running so strong with women. I believe what's happened here is the women want security. This is foremost in their minds for their family, for their children, that this is a secure nation.

So, they have to have a person in that White House that they feel that they can have confidence in him as a commander in chief. They've lost that confidence in Kerry over the last couple months. They now have placed it in to the president.

I think, again, if the president can make certain he gives them, leaves the audience with the feeling that he's in charge, he knows what's happening, things are going just fine, there is some trouble spots there, but I am in charge and I know what's happening, and we're moving along just fine here, they get that sense of faith in him. Then they're going to stay with him.

And the second thing, of course, is, again, likability, that sense of humor, they like him. They have that faith. That combination is going to be a very tough one to break for John Kerry.

BRAZILE: Well, Bay, I think it's important to understand that they want security, plus. They security plus good jobs, they want security plus health care, security plus education.

So, I think John Kerry right now is under-performing with married women, but he's doing very well with single women. He'll do very well with these women in the long term because they, like many other Americans, would like to see not only a strong and secure country, but also one that provides education and health care to all its citizens. BUCHANAN: You know, Donna, you're absolutely right. Except the problem is, if they can get past security, security is the number one issue for these women.

And it's not just married women. It's also single women with children. This is going to be number one to them.

They're looking at this. If they don't feel John Kerry is prepared to be commander in chief, if they have some question, some doubt there, which they certainly do today, then they will not move over to him hoping for the jobs. They'll stay with the president for security.

BRAZILE: Hey, Bay, there is no question that these women will understand that John Kerry is the person you want to be -- John Kerry is the person you want to be in the foxhole with because he'll get you out and not just cheer you on. That's what they're looking for.

Thank you, Bay. I think it's time for us to go to break at this point.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRAZILE: This is Donna Brazile in Washington, D.C. Judy Woodruff is down in Miami. We're having some technical difficulties. Judy will be right with us.

Bay Buchanan, my co-host here right now.

Bay, the Los Angeles poll today showed that George Bush is enjoying a five-point lead. How long do you think this lead will stand?

BUCHANAN: Well, you know, he's had a strong lead now, and he's pulling ahead in a number of those states, which, of course, are critical polls. I think he's running very strong right now, Donna.

And to come into this debate this strong, he's going to feel a little more confidence. And I think that's what puts a lot of pressure on your man, John Kerry.

He's got to be aggressive. He's got to attack. And at the same time, he's going to have to appeal to those women.

And I think he's got a tough, tough act to follow. You don't want to look mean-spirited in this debate tonight.

BRAZILE: But one of the findings in this poll, Bay, also indicates that one-fifth of voters are looking to change their mind. Perhaps more of those voters are looking tonight to see what John Kerry has to offer, and this can pose a problem to the Bush campaign because there seems to be some softness, even within his own base.

BUCHANAN: Your point is a good one. And this, of course, is the critical debate, the first one. And a lot of people are looking at it to kind of firm it up and make a final decision. Many of them won't turn in a debate in again. So, this might be the last chance for both candidates.

And Bush being in the lead, then he does have some vulnerability there. But I think, again, Bush is in a strings position because he just has to be himself.

He is the president, he has to act the president. He knows the situation in the war on terror. He feels confident he's made the right decisions. And Kerry has to throw him off his game, as I said before, Donna.

So, I think the key here is that Kerry attacks, he could look mean-spirited and angry. And in fact, he's the kind of guy who's got that mug. He looks a little angry when he walks through the door, much less when he's attacking.

And he doesn't -- you know, I think that he's got the tougher job tonight. I think there is no question that the burden is on John Kerry. And Bush just has to be himself and he'll win this thing.

BRAZILE: Well, Bay, you just indicated that the president -- I believe Judy is back. Judy, are you back with us?

WOODRUFF: I was going to say, we've exposed the real truth, and that is you don't need me for these discussions, you guys.

BRAZILE: Oh, absolutely.

WOODRUFF: You're perfectly capable of carrying on by yourselves.

BRAZILE: Well, we're glad to see you back.

WOODRUFF: Donna, Bay, thanks very much.

BRAZILE: Thank you, Judy.

BUCHANAN: Glad to be with you again, Judy.

WOODRUFF: Proving yet again you're both the pros. Thanks very much.

Yes, we did have a little technical problem. We're glad to have the signal back from Miami. But many thanks to Donna and Bay for putting in double duty.

Well, both campaigns will, no doubt, be watching to see how tonight's debate affects the presidential polls, of course. Coming up in our next half-hour, we'll continue to set the scene with the clash of the candidates here at the University of Miami, with more live reports from our correspondents covering Bush and Kerry.

And don't forget, CNN's debate coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern and continues throughout the debate and into the evening.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK MARKET REPORT)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Five hours from now, President Bush and Senator Kerry faceoff on this stage. What happens tonight could alter the race for the White House.

We know that the war in Iraq and the war on terror will dominate tonight's debate. But what are the other hot issues over which the candidates will clash?

Four hurricanes in two months -- the sunshine state may once again decide the election. But are Floridians even paying attention to the campaign?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think the election right now is the most important thing for people who don't have a place to live and food to eat.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Now, live from the University of Miami, site of the first presidential debate, JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS.

WOODRUFF: Welcome back to debate central. Yes, it is only five hours away. Both President Bush and Senator Kerry hoping to emerge as the winner of their first one-on-one tonight.

But with apologies to the late Vince Lombardi, winning isn't the only thing that matters in these faceoffs. Our correspondents are keeping close watch on the expectations game and how the campaigns are playing it.

Our senior White House correspondent John King is here in Miami following the Bush camp. John, how are they trying to shape expectations there?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, it is somewhat funny to listen to the Bush camp. He has been president, of course, for nearly four years now, yet they are trying to make the case that he's the decided underdog in this debate, saying that senators debate on the floor all the time, that John Kerry was an ivy league debater and a prep school debater. And that one of the reasons they wanted strict rules on time limits and the answers was because they didn't want the format to benefit Senator Kerry.

But make no mistake about it, the president is a proven debater. We have learned that in his campaigns for governor and president. He also knows that as the incumbent, the burden is on him tonight to defend his record.

I will say this, Judy, the Bush campaign thinks, substance aside -- and there will be a great deal of substance and a great deal of disagreement on the substance -- substance aside, the Bush campaign thinks it has one huge advantage going in, and that is style and likability.

They think the president is a more likable politician, a much more approachable person, that he comes across on the television screens, which of course some 50 million people perhaps watching tonight at home. So, they think they do have that advantage, and they're trying to lower the expectations when it comes to debating skills.

But he's the incumbent president, Judy. He's going to have to hold his own.

WOODRUFF: So, John, what, if anything, are they worried about from John Kerry?

KING; Well, they believe John Kerry will repeatedly try to turn the focus to the situation on the ground in Iraq now and question the decisions that led us there. Why did the president say no when General Shinseki, for example, said it would take many thousands more troops than the Pentagon sent? Why did the president not anticipate the insurgency, and why have they not done more to combat the insurgency? Why have they done so many things?

Senator Kerry has laid out a number of questions about Iraq policy. They say the president is prepared to answer those questions. The one concern, if you will, among some Republicans outside the Bush campaign is that he will try to deflect every attack and try to make it about Kerry conflicts, past contradictory statements by Senator Kerry.

Republicans say the president must first explain and defend his record. The White House insists he's ready to do that. But make no mistake, Judy, he also will quickly try to pivot and say, "You might not agree with every decision I have made, but I make the tough decisions. My opponent changes his mind" -- blows in the political wind, as the president puts it. Look for that to be a constant theme tonight from the president.

WOODRUFF: All right. John King following President Bush and his campaign.

Let's turn now quickly to the Kerry campaign and how it's setting the stage for the senator's performance tonight. Our senior political correspondent Candy Crowley's here. She's been following John Kerry for many, many days.

Candy, you know, we heard John say that the Bush camp is trying to say the president's the underdog, but it's really John Kerry who is the underdog tonight. And how are they playing that?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, certainly the underdog when it comes to the, you know, expectations here. And what they don't like about the expectations in here is now, oh, John Kerry's not that great of a debater, because they say, you know, he is. We expect him -- he's, you know, a very intelligent man. We expect him to do very well. They admit that. What they don't like is the notion that they say is out there that somehow this is to be an end all. If John Kerry doesn't just blow them away tonight that it is all over. So, they're very -- you know, saying, look, there's three debates. This is one of them. They expect him to do very well, but they don't want this to be the end of the game.

WOODRUFF: You and I were also talking about how they are already looking ahead to broadening the debate after tonight -- I mean, with a point that you make that it's not just about Iraq, it's about more than that.

CROWLEY: Right. And particularly in some of the places where we expect this campaign to be decided, and that is in those Midwest battlegrounds.

What they want to do is take the same sort of line of attack, which is George Bush made, you know, bad judgments, and he's made some bad mistakes and he's misleading you about how things are. They want to take that and implant it over the economy and start talking a little bit about that.

It's always going to come back to Iraq. I think -- I know that the Kerry campaign has accepted that -- that just the undertow of Iraq is always going to be pulling them in that direction. But they do kind of want to broaden it out, especially going into St. Louis where the debate will be, you know, about other things.

WOODRUFF: Well, Candy, this last point with -- or one of the points that John made about how the president's people feel he's a more likable figure. Do the Kerry folks worry about that?

CROWLEY: Well, they can see the fact, actually. What's really interesting is, you know, they said, look, you know, we concede the president's a likable guy. He comes across well. We know that.

But you know what? This isn't about likability. This isn't a personality contest. This is about the issues. You know, serious man for serious times.

So, to a certain extent, they're trying to blunt that whole, yes, he's a likable guy and people are going to like him by saying, yeah, but that's not what this is about. It's about, you know, these serious things and John Kerry has serious answers.

Having said that, one has to believe that they're going to try to find a way for John Kerry to reach out to an audience this big and show a human side.

WOODRUFF: Warm up, in other words.

CROWLEY: Right, right. Make a connection, as we call it -- make that connection

WOODRUFF: OK. Candy Crowley, we'll be looking for all kinds of connections. Thanks very much. We appreciate it. Well, Florida was chosen to host this first John Kerry and George Bush debate for good reason: It is not only a showdown state this year, but a symbol of political divisions that surfaced, we all well know, four years ago. Little did the campaigns know that Florida would hold another distinction come debate day as the state hardest hit bay series of powerful hurricanes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CPT. MIGUEL BARRANCO: Yes, I haven't had anything for a month at least.

WOODRUFF (voice-over): Miguel Barranco charters a sailboat in Coconut Grove. And when the hurricanes came, his business dried up. Still it could have been much worse.

While the storms hit his wallet, they bypassed Miami, so the "Como-tu" was spared. And unlike thousands in the devastated northern part of the state, Captain Barranco hasn't been forced to rebuild his life.

He's able to focus on other things, like tonight's debate. He doesn't expect most hurricane-ravaged Floridians to do the same.

BARRANCO: How can you have anything on your mind other than getting back on your feet?

WOODRUFF: Down the dock, Robert Kender's (ph) shrimping business has been hurting, too.

ROBERT KENDER (ph), SHRIMPER: With serious weather conditions out here, you can't work.

WOODRUFF: The campaign's been far from his mind, so he's hoping tonight offers some clarity.

KENDER (ph): I'm not totally up to date on all the debates, what they're going to be discussing and all that, because I'm having a struggle trying to keep my own life together between the weather conditions, the hurricanes...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) I was the only one in the Grove open, so my business extremely busy, extremely busy.

WOODRUFF: It still is.

And over champagne and wine, politics has crept back into conversation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am open-minded.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have very specific views.

WOODRUFF (on camera): What are they?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm for Bush, and she's for Kerry. WOODRUFF (voice-over): They're back to bickering about the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did we go in, and why are we still there?

WOODRUFF: And bantering about the campaign, the president and his challenger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) throughout all three debates he actually sticks to the same point of view.

WOODRUFF: Conversations they realize are a luxury.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When your whole place is destroyed, your problems become a lot greater than who will be sitting in the White House.

WOODRUFF: On Loretto Street in Coral Gables, just blocks from the debate site, some houses still have their storm shutters up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four in a row is kind of tough. Better to be safe than sorry.

WOODRUFF: Aaron Thefur (ph) and Connie Filling (ph) are going to a debate-watching party tonight. But they don't think most northern Floridians will be tuning in. Half a million are still without power.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My brother lives in Fort Pierce, he has been hit twice. He lost more of his house on the second hurricane than the first. I'm sure the election is the farthest thing from his mind right now.

WOODRUFF: But down in Miami, folks may welcome a change of subject.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To focus on something different than hurricanes. Of course, you know, we have Hurricane Bush and Hurricane Kerry coming through. We'll see which one prevails. So, we'll see what happens.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WOODRUFF: All right. In Florida they have got enough to worry about already. And now come the candidates. Checking the headlines in our campaign news daily, like those results in New Jersey we told about earlier, there are interesting new polls in two more states not normally considered to be battleground. George Bush is leading John Kerry in Virginia, a reliably Republican state. But his edge is six points in a new Mason-Dixon poll. Bush won Virginia by eight points four years ago.

There's a similar situation for John Kerry in usually Democratic leaning Connecticut. Kerry leads Bush by six points there among likely voters and nine points among registered voters. Bush lost Connecticut by 17 points in 2000.

As for the enthusiasm of voters heading toward election day, Bush appears to have the edge. In a new ABC News/"Washington Post" survey, 61 percent of Bush supporters said they are very enthusiastic about their candidate while just 39 percent of Kerry supporters describe themselves that way.

While Bush and Kerry square off here in Florida, their running mates will be on the road cheering them on. Democrat John Edwards has no public events scheduled until he attends a rally in Columbus, Ohio, after the debate is over. Vice President Dick Cheney headed to Colorado this morning. He plans to attend a debate party later tonight in Denver.

Many Americans are especially interested in hearing Bush and Kerry debate their strategies for the war on terror. Up next, we'll consider the other global threat likely to come up tonight.

And the debate scene in the "CROSSFIRE" when Bob Novak and Paul Begala draw fire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: We're at the University of Miami. You can see the students here have some strong feelings about this election. A number of Bush-Cheney supporters and about an equal number of Kerry-Edwards supporters. We're glad to have them here watching. Both Iraq and the war on terror are sure to headline tonight's presidential foreign policy debate. At least that's what we expect.

However we know there are a large number of other international issues that could be explored. National correspondent Bruce Morton explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): We could start by talking about America's role in the world. President Bush sees Iraq as part of an effort to change the world and bring democracy to all people everywhere. Senator Kerry sees Iraq as a mistake and talks of a more concentrated war against al Qaeda and other known terrorist groups. How would Bush spread democracy to undemocratic countries like, say, Saudi Arabia?

What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The Bush administration once has a road map for peace but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and/or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tore up the map. Where do you go next? All recent American presidents have supported Israel. Kerry would be no exception.

What about North Korea, a member of the nuclear weapons club. Kerry calls for direct negotiations with the north. But North Korea made and broke one agreement. Would either candidate use force, invade?

And what about Iran which may be moving toward nuclear weapons? Bush has talked of asking the U.N. security council to impose sanctions if necessary. Kerry has proposed supplying fuel for a nuclear path (ph) on condition that spent fuel be returned and not used for weapons. Again, would either candidate use force, invade?

What about Sudan? Would either candidate use U.S. troops alone or as part of an international force to stop genocide in Darfur.

What about Russian President Vladimir Putin who seems to be taking his country away from democracy and toward authoritarian rule. Bush has supported Putin in his fight against Chechen terrorism but like Kerry has been critical of recent moves away from democracy. Is there anything the U.S. can or should do about this?

What about missile defense? The U.S. is preparing to deploy an expensive system in Alaska but it hasn't been tested much and some experts think it will only be 20 percent effective. Kerry has been critical.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MORTON: Still the main difference really may be over America's role as the bringer of democracy to all people everywhere. Bush wants to change the world, one columnist noted, Kerry's goals seem more traditional and less grand -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Bruce Morton reminding us that there's more going on in the world than just Iraq. Thank you very much.

Well, they debate on a daily basis practically. Just ahead we'll have them face off over tonight's face-off. CNN's "CROSSFIRE" hosts Bob Novak and Paul Begala coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: Boy, you can be sure the candidates are preparing to launch their best verbal shots at each other tonight. And as always, CNN's own Paul Begala and Bob Novak are preparing to wade into the "CROSSFIRE" at the half hour. They join me now for a little sneak preview.

It's hard to come up with a question that you guys haven't already thought of. But let me try this. In your heart of hearts, Paul, do you think the dynamic of this race is going to change tonight -- after tonight?

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": It can. It really can. Kerry has got to clear the bar. Now Bush has set the bar very low for Kerry. He has told the country that Kerry is weak and waffling and indecisive. If Kerry can be strong and certain and brief, I think he can win a lot of votes.

WOODRUFF: Bob, can it change?

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I think it's possible. I don't think that Senator Kerry can do it by himself. I think you need a gaffe by George W. Bush on the magnitude of the Jimmy Carter gaffe in 1976 -- or the Jimmy -- and I'm sorry, the Gerald Ford gaffe in 1976, Jimmy Carter gaffe in 1980. They exchanged favors. You need a real mistake or even just a stylistic error as when the senior George Bush looked at his watch, and they said, gee, he's disconnected, something like that has to happen I think for this change of dynamic.

WOODRUFF: But what is the likelihood, Paul, that something like that is going to happen? These guys have been preparing for days. The format is down to a T. And clearly there is some flexibility on the part of the moderator, Jim Lehrer, but what is the likelihood?

BEGALA: I think it's highly unlikely, particularly on the part of President Bush. He's a very focused, directed, determined debater. I've watched every debate he has ever done. I played him with Al Gore in the practice debates.

He plays this game Like Chris Evert used to play tennis, just no unforced errors. You know, he's not great. He's no Jack Kennedy or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. But he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. I don't think though that that's what's necessary. His risk is if he looks like he is out of touch with what's going on the ground in Iraq, and a day when 49 people were killed, mostly children. If he doesn't acknowledge that the thing is a mess in Iraq, he looks like he's out of touch.

WOODRUFF: Does he need to acknowledge that, Bob, tonight?

NOVAK: No, I don't think he should acknowledge that. I think he should say it is very tough, which he has said. I don't think he has to say that we're in just terrible shape and I don't know what I'm going to do. Woe is me. I think that's ridiculous.

But one thing I would say, you interviewed Joe Lockhart on the program a while -- a few minutes ago, and he said that this race is a toss up. He doesn't believe that. Nobody believes it's a toss up. It was a toss up a month ago.

WOODRUFF: You mean he was spinning to me. Is that what you're...

NOVAK: He was spinning you. It was a pre-debate spin. It isn't a runaway by any means. And I would never say that Senator Kerry couldn't catch up, but he has to catch up. And that's what the dynamic of the race is. It is that George Bush is ahead and somehow or another Senator Kerry has to find a way to close that gap.

BEGALA: I think Bob is right. Kerry is the underdog. Now America likes the underdog. If he can sort of wrap himself in that mantle and embrace it instead of trying to say, well, it is -- we're tied, it's a toss up, I think people like a guy who is coming from behind.

WOODRUFF: Well, the Kerry people are trying to suggest, as Joe Lockhart did, that this is not a make or break event tonight. Are you saying, Bob, that it is?

NOVAK: Oh, I think it is a make or break. The first debate of all of these is always the one that people remember the most. They remember the classic one in the 1960s they had four debates and nobody could remember the second, third and fourth one. It was that first debate where Kennedy beat Nixon.

That's what everybody remembers. And that is the debate that gets the most attention. There are exceptions to that rule. But usually, usually the first debate is controlling.

BEGALA: I totally disagree. Look at the history. Ronald Reagan's great line about "I'm not going to use my opponent's age and inexperience against him" was in the second debate. He was terrible in the first debate in 1984. But he more than recovered. And of course, he trounced Mondale in the election.

When President Bush senior looked at his watch, that was in Richmond, Virginia, it was not the first debate it was the second. So I think all three of these debates -- I don't believe for a minute this is the only one that matters. It's awfully important. But the town hall format is going to be important to see how these guys connect with real people. And the domestic policy debate is going to be very important.

NOVAK: And one thing you can't argue about is that there is a bigger audience on the first debate.

BEGALA: That's true.

WOODRUFF: Bigger audience, but Paul says a significant audience, and the press will be covering the second and third debates every bit as avidly we're covering this one.

NOVAK: Well, I don't think it's always that case. But it very often is that the first debate is controlling. I really, too -- think too that things -- the perception, as I talk to Democrats, their morale is poor. They -- I've had several Democrats use the word life support for Senator Kerry. I think that's an exaggeration. I don't think he's on life support. But the morale is low. And I think the Democrats really need a boost out of this tonight to lift their spirits.

BEGALA: I think Bob has got a good point. He's not at all on life support. It is -- I think Joe means a toss-up in the sense that either guy could win. And I think that's absolutely true. But the latest polls that show Bush creeping up to 50 is a real danger sign for John Kerry.

WOODRUFF: All right. If you thought this was smart, just wait until 4:30. You're going to get a lot more smart talk from Paul Begala and Bob Novak. Gentleman, thank you both. We appreciate it.

Another reminder, CNN is your place for full debate coverage. Join me, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn and CNN's entire election team as we kick off our primetime coverage tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're back in just a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: That's it for INSIDE POLITICS from the University of Miami. I'm Judy Woodruff. Thanks for joining us. And remember to stay with CNN throughout the evening for complete coverage of the presidential debate. I'll be joined tonight by Wolf Blitzer and the rest of CNN's election team when our primetime coverage starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Have a great evening. We'll see you. "CROSSFIRE" starts right now.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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