NEW BEDFORD -- To prepare for his debate last night against the man praised as a premier orator in Congress, Chuck Morse studied tapes of John F. Kennedy's debate with Richard Nixon. His opponent, US Representative Barney Frank, went to Florida to campaign with Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Morse and Frank have faced off several times during this campaign, as Morse struggles for attention and votes in his long-shot bid to unseat the 24-year congressman from Newton. Frank, however, already is looking past his congressional race against Morse, eyeing a run for the US Senate if John F. Kerry wins his race for the White House.
But Morse is hoping to slow Frank down. ''I'm a pretty good communicator," said Morse, a conservative radio talk-show host. ''I can certainly hold my own against Barney Frank."
Frank, sounding a bit like a prize fighter sizing up a regular sparring partner, was unimpressed: ''I didn't notice any great skill," Frank said of Morse, before last night's event at New Bedford's Wamsutta Club. ''He began our first debate saying he was intimidated."
Frank, 58, was rated by a CSPAN survey as the Democratic Party's most effective speaker. The September issue of The Washingtonian magazine called him the Democrats' best debater in Congress.
An earlier debate with Frank in Mattapoisett left Morse ''stammering," according to an account in the New Bedford Standard Times. Morse's spokesman, Ben Kilgore, conceded he was ''too polite."
Throughout the campaign, Morse has accused Frank of weakening immigration laws that were designed to block terrorists from obtaining visas. Morse says the laws might have helped keep out the 9/11 terrorists, a charge Frank denies.
During his seven years hosting ''Morse Code" on WROL-950 AM in Quincy, Morse says, he debated Frank by phone three times. In March, the two dueled over Iraq policy, an encounter that left Morse confident he could take on the veteran congressman.
On his radio show and cable TV program in Brookline, Morse has sparred with such liberal heavyweights as Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, and Noam Chomsky. Talkers magazine listed him among the ''hot 100 upcoming talk-show hosts in America."
He has acknowledged his uphill battle. Frank bought $350,000 of air time, mostly on Boston TV stations, in what was seen as an effort to raise his profile in case he runs for Senate. He has raised more than $1 million through Sept. 30. Morse has $140,000 in his campaign account.
Yet Frank has agreed to hold several debates with Morse, including the Oct. 14 encounter at Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett and another three days later in Newton for a cable TV program scheduled to be shown today on local access Channel 9 at 2:09 p.m.
After last night's scheduled debate in New Bedford, the candidates plan a final meeting tonight on New England Cable News.
Last night, Morse planned to criticize Frank, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, for allowing Sovereign Bank to cut 350 jobs in New Bedford after buying Compass Bank. The purchase emptied one of the city's largest office buildings, Morse said.
He also hoped to portray Frank as bored of his job.
Benjamin Gedan can be reached at email@example.com.