Mr. Bush came out swinging Monday at a stop in the battleground state of Ohio. After a weekend of debate preparation at his ranch in Texas, the president worked a jab at his Democratic opponent into an appeal to voters in Springfield, Ohio.
"This week, debating my opponent, it's been tough to prepare cause he keeps changing positions in the war on terror. He could spend 90 minutes debating himself," the president said.
"You got to be able to speak clearly in order to make this world a more peaceful place," Mr. Bush added. "You cannot expect to lead this world if you try to take both sides of every position."
With the first debate focusing on foreign policy, the Bush campaign also rolled out
"How can John Kerry protect us when he doesn't even know where he stands," the ad asks.
It shows quick snippets of the Democrat's comments on the war, including "the winning of the war was brilliant," and "It's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."
The Bush campaign is trying to portray Kerry as an indecisive candidate who shouldn't be trusted to serve as commander in chief.
The Kerry campaign responded, "George Bush hasn't been straight with the American people about Iraq and he isn't being straight with them about John Kerry." Said spokesman Phil Singer, "The Bush campaign's misleading, false ads are aimed at covering up the wrong choices George Bush has made in Iraq and the fantasyland descriptions he uses to cover up his failure to deal with the violence on the ground."
Kerry also took a break from his debate preparations Monday to accuse President Bush of seeking to hide the facts on Iraq from the American people.
The Democrat held a town meeting in Spring Green, Wisconsin, not far from the golf resort where he's boning up for Thursday night's face-off.
For a second straight day, Kerry denounced the president for saying he stands by last year's aircraft carrier speech declaring an end to major combat. Kerry said, "The mission was not accomplished" in Iraq – and the president knows it.
Both sides also know the stakes of the debates, four in all through Oct. 13, including one between Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic opponent John Edwards.
"I think Kerry realizes this is his last chance to make his mark," presidential historian Alan Lichtman of American University told CBS News Correspondent Stacy Case.
A recent national poll found that nearly one-third of those questioned thought the debates would help them decide how to vote.
Monday's stop in Ohio was Mr. Bush's 26th visit to the state as president. Underscoring its importance in the election, Mr. Bush returns again on Saturday.
The president is back at his Texas ranch Monday night. He has a clear schedule Tuesday for more last-minute practice sessions for the debate.
Monday's town hall meeting at Spring Green Junior High School was Kerry's only scheduled public event during four days of debate preparations in Wisconsin, a state where Mr. Bush holds a slight advantage in recent polls and which Democrat Al Gore won by some 6,000 votes in 2000.
Since then, Kerry said, Mr. Bush has created only 200 jobs in a state that has lost 67,000 manufacturing jobs on his watch.
"Are you telling me seriously that people in Wisconsin are going to return to the presidency a man who promised jobs and lost them?" Kerry asked. "I think the good commonsense, fiscally responsible, conservative citizens of Wisconsin know that it's our responsibility to pay our bills and not dump them on our kids and on future generations."