CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry will step into an auditorium on the campus of the University of Miami tonight for a presidential debate that focuses on the issue at the crux of the election -- national security -- and that both sides agree is expected to determine its outcome.
So high are the stakes that both campaigns were busy yesterday holding conference calls and issuing briefing papers on an event that will not take place until 9 this evening.
Kerry previewed some of his lines of argument in a television interview, saying Bush failed to level with voters about the evidence before invading Iraq. Kerry, long plagued by accusations he has switched views about the war, declared on ABC's "Good Morning America" that "we should not have gone to war knowing the information that we know today." But Kerry also gave the Bush campaign fodder for its accusation that the Democrat is inconsistent -- the main point the president's advisers hope to hammer home during and after the debate.
Pressed to explain his line about voting for an $87 billion aid bill before voting against it, Kerry said it was "one of those inarticulate moments, late in the evening when I was dead tired in the primaries." Almost instantly, Bush campaign officials pointed out that Kerry had spoken at a noontime event. Aides to the Massachusetts senator later said he had made a mistake in his recollection.
Both Bush and Kerry arrived in Florida ahead of the debate, an opportunity to campaign in a closely contested swing state that has been rendered more politically unpredictable by a series of devastating hurricanes. But with the debate expected to draw by far the highest audience of any political event in the campaign so far, political strategists said it could potentially overshadow almost every other twist to date.
The two campaigns have poured extraordinary resources into preparing for the debate, flying scores of staff members to Florida to set up "spin alley," the room where surrogates attack the other side and declare victory after the debate. The Bush campaign issued a briefing book on Kerry's positions, while the Kerry campaign issued its "prebuttal" for the debate.
Both teams worked furiously to convince reporters that their candidate is the lesser orator. While Kerry aides played up the unexpected success Bush had against former vice president Al Gore in 2000, Bush advisers reverted to a line from the 2000 race, arguing that the president is an ungifted speaker.
"I think most Americans know that the president occasionally mangles the English language, mispronounces a few words here and there, and has not spent a lifetime practicing debating, which is what Senator Kerry has done," senior Bush adviser Karen Hughes told reporters on Air Force One, saying Kerry has "spent his entire life preparing for this moment, starting in prep school and during 20 years in the Senate."
Kerry adviser Mike McCurry outlined his own challenge for Bush. "If President Bush comes clean tomorrow night with some real answers on what's going wrong there [in Iraq], and frankly if he's humble enough to admit to some mistakes and some errors in judgment and miscalculations, then I think we'll have a different kind of debate," McCurry said. "I think that will be the measure of success for him, whether he really can get beyond this point where he looks so stubbornly arrogant that he doesn't want to see reality."
When Gore headed into the presidential debates in the last election, he held a narrow lead over Bush in the polls. Democrats were increasingly confident that their candidate was on a steady path toward victory.
But after the first debate, Gore's standing plummeted. Virtually every strategist in both parties agrees that if there was a specific moment the race turned, it was the first debate, which took place at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Democrats now find themselves hoping for a similar shift -- this time, away from the incumbent and toward the challenger.
This time around, Bush has a record he must defend. Nonetheless, the Bush team has tried to put the onus back on Kerry.
"There is a priority you have as a challenger to present credentials," senior White House adviser Dan Bartlett told reporters Monday, as the president trundled through Ohio on a bus tour. "[The voters] know the president. The challenge is to say what you would do for the next four years."
Bush arrived in Florida after taking time yesterday morning to ride his mountain bike around his Texas ranch and fish in his bass pond. En route, he stopped in the central Florida community of Lake Wales, an orange-growing area that was hit by three of the four hurricanes to strike Florida in the past six weeks. The president's visit brought him to the eighth most-populous county in the state, just south of the vote-rich Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando.
Kerry, in a rally in Madison, Wis., before departing for Florida, criticized Bush's policies as leading to higher oil prices.
"The president told us that the oil in Iraq was going to bring the price of oil down to $28 a barrel," Kerry said. "The president promised us the oil would pay for the war. But we know that those oil pipes are being blown up; we know that $50 a barrel isn't as bad as it might get."
Earlier in the day, ABC aired its interview with Kerry, including some tough questions about the war in Iraq. Asked whether the war in Iraq was worth the costs, Kerry replied: "We should not have gone to war knowing the information that we know today."
"So it was not worth it," interviewer Diane Sawyer said.
"We should not -- it depends on the outcome ultimately -- and that depends on the leadership," Kerry said.
"So if it turns out OK, it was worth it?" Sawyer asked.
"No," Kerry said.
A few moments later, Kerry said, "But was it worth -- as you asked the question -- $200 billion and taking the focus off of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda?"
Hughes, speaking to reporters, responded to Kerry's "Good Morning America" comments: "He now says, six weeks after saying, 'I would have voted the same way,' he now says no, he wouldn't. . . . He was asked whether it was worth it; he said, 'It depends on what the outcome is.' I guess that means if we win, it was worth it; if we don't, it wasn't. That's leadership, isn't it?"
Glen Johnson of the Globe staff, traveling with the president, contributed to this report.