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Candidates Prep For Big Debate

Their first debate just days away, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry kept their public schedules clear on Saturday and began to focus on their prime-time showdown.

At his Texas ranch, Bush and his political advisers went over plans and worked toward an evening practice session for the leadoff debate of the 2004 campaign.

In Boston, Kerry caught up on work and met with campaign staff at his home ahead of the Sept. 30th debate at the University of Miami. On Sunday, the Massachusetts senator was shifting camp to a Wisconsin resort for his debate preparations.

"Getting the American people to see them side by side as potential commanders in chief is a real part of what we're going to be doing when we stand up at that first debate," Kerry campaign spokesman Mike McCurry said.

The high-stakes character of the encounter was reflected in a poll that found one in four voters says their decision could hinge on what they see next Thursday. The survey also showed Mr. Bush with a 49-41 percent lead over Kerry.

Joining Bush at his ranch was Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who was standing in for Kerry in a practice round expected to last a few hours.

"I think this will be an opportunity for him to crystallize his thoughts prior to the first debate," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "You obviously only have a limited amount of time to get your points across."

On Friday, Kerry slammed President Bush for pursuing Saddam Hussein instead of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, a choice Kerry contended had made defeating terrorism more difficult.

"The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, al Qaeda," Kerry said in a speech at Temple University. "There's just no question about it. The president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the war on terror harder to win."

Kerry said Iraq has become a haven for terrorists since the war, and he offered a detailed strategy to contain terrorism while drawing a sharp distinction between his and the president's views on national security.

"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority," Kerry said. "I will finish the job in Iraq and I will refocus our energies on the real war on terror."

The Bush-Cheney campaign said the president is already following that course. "He is copying the president's plan at the same time he is attacking the president," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.

While campaigning Friday in Lafayette, La., Vice President Dick Cheney told supporters, "John Kerry is trying to tear down and trash all the good that has been accomplished."