According to their respective campaigns and surrogates, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry will face skilled debaters when they square off Thursday night.
But despite the campaigns painting their candidates as underdogs or the debate as no big deal, operatives for each camp have been working to frame the debate in the most favorable terms.
For the president it is about his opponent's allegedly shifting positions. For Kerry, the debate is a highlight reel of the president's supposed foreign policy failures.
Campaigns typically try to lower expectations before a debate, because the expectations game is really the one where they can be declared a loser. The media cannot declare a winner in a debate, but its experts and commentators can gauge how each man has done relative to expectations.
Thus, both the Bush and Kerry teams have been working to lower the bar they face Thursday night in Miami.
"From his days in college to the floor of the Senate to a grueling series of eight debates running for re-election in 1996, Kerry has honed his skills as a debater over a lifetime," proclaimed the Bush campaign Web site.
The president's campaign has dubbed Kerry the "Master Debater," even producing a mock movie poster featuring glowing quotes about the Massachusetts senator's skills. Among them is former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, whom Kerry beat in a come-from-behind 1996 reelection fight, calling Kerry "very, very quick."
"The best debater since Cicero," quips Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
But the Kerry team is also busy praising the president's debating talents. The candidate himself told ABC on Thursday morning, "He's a very clever debater. ... He's president."
In the face of polls showing Kerry losing momentum nationwide and in key states, some commentators are painting the Miami meeting as a crossroads for his campaign.
Gannett's Chuck Raasch said the debates are Kerry's "biggest challenge and opportunity." Agence France-Presse said Kerry "will be fighting to stay in the U.S. election race."
Kerry backers, however, are talking down the importance of the Thursday night affair.
"There are three debates," Kerry adviser and former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart told CNN. "There's plenty of time here. The idea that tonight is make or break – that's just silly."
Earlier on the same program, Bush campaign chairman and former Montana Gov. Mark Racicot suggested that for Mr. Bush it really was not a debate at all.
"He knows what he believes," Racicot said. "It doesn't really matter who the opposition might be."
While the campaigns' respective mouthpieces try to downplay the importance of the debates, each side has also made pretty clear how it hopes to frame the 90 minutes of questions and answers on foreign policy.
Both campaigns have drawn up mock "briefing books" for their opponents.
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani introduced the Bush briefing book for Kerry with a familiar attack on the senator's alleged vacillation on major policy issues.
"Sen. Kerry has taken so many different positions on the issues facing the country that we thought he would benefit from the overview of the most interesting debate — the one John Kerry is having with himself," Giuliani said in a statement.
The briefing book accuses Kerry of his stance in a number of foreign policy and security areas, from Iraq to North Korea to intelligence reform and the USA PATRIOT Act.
"You are currently against the war and wouldn't have gone to war, but you used to be for the war before you were against the war before you were for the war," the book reads.
Depicting Kerry as an ambiguous, unsure leader has been a regular tactic of the Bush campaign, and has successfully defined "flip-flopping" as one area where the media can harangue the Massachusetts senator.
For its part, the Kerry campaign's line is that the Bush presidency is a failure.
"Each month since the handover of sovereignty has been bloodier than the last," said the Kerry briefing book for Mr. Bush, discussing casualties in Iraq. The book is called the PDB, or Prebuttal Debate Briefing, a reference to the Aug. 6, 2001 presidential daily brief that discussed a possible al Qaeda plot to hijack airliners.
"Only $1 billion of the $18 billion reconstruction package for Iraq has been spent," the briefing book states. The book includes several editorial cartoons, including one comparing Mr. Bush's rosy proclamations on Iraq to Comical Ali, the Saddam Hussein spokesman who said U.S. troops were being defeated even as they rolled into Baghdad.
"Osama Been Forgotten," the book quips, and later claims, "Bush has no strategy for Iran."
The Kerry campaign also distributed CDs to the media titled "Bush Vs. Reality."
By Jarrett Murphy