CRAWFORD, Texas -- Bicycling and fishing were as much on President Bush's agenda yesterday as debate preparations, as he sought to clear his head before tomorrow night's political showdown with John F. Kerry in Florida.
The Democratic presidential nominee, meanwhile, huddled with his advisers at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., concluding his work for a debate before his largest audience ever. He also taped a network television interview aimed at maintaining his public profile and reaching out to coveted women voters while he is off the campaign trail.
"I think John Kerry's task is heavy," Bush pollster Matthew Dowd told reporters in a conference call highlighting his campaign's last-minute effort to raise expectations for Kerry's performance and lower them for the president. "He has to do in 90 minutes what he hasn't been able to do in two years, which is give credibility to what he says."
Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade countered Dowd's statement, saying, "George Bush has a 90-minute test to do what he's failed at for the last four years, which is own up to his mistakes in Iraq and his failures in making America as safe as we should be."
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said that by lunchtime yesterday Bush had already received his daily national security briefings, participated in informal debate preparations, biked around his Texas ranch, and gone fishing. He dismissed an editorial in Crawford's weekly newspaper, The Lone Star Iconoclast, which endorsed Kerry over its hometown president.
Chuckling, McClellan said, "I feel pretty confident about the people of Crawford and the state of Texas in this election and where they stand."
He also announced that the president would visit hurricane victims in Florida today en route to the debate site in Coral Gables. It will be his third such visit following four hurricanes, but McClellan denied that Bush is trying to enhance in stature in a pivotal electoral ground both by his presence and the $10 billion in aid he has sought for Florida in Congress.
Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Bush-Cheney reelection committee, sent out an e-mail on Monday making what he said was a nonpartisan appeal for blood donations to help Floridians and other residents in the region affected by the hurricanes.
"Many areas of Florida have been devastated by all these hurricanes," McClellan said. "This is a time for all of us to come together and support the people of Florida during these difficult times. That's what this is about. It's about helping them respond and recover from the damage of these storms."
Kerry's task was balancing his debate preparation yesterday with a more immediate political concern: tackling Bush's lead in a batch of polls released this week, including a new Pew Research Center survey of registered voters that put the president ahead by 8 percentage points.
In between briefings with campaign aides and mock debates to hone his answers on Iraq, North Korea, and Middle East policy, Kerry also went to the main lodge of a Wisconsin golf resort -- where he has been holed up since Sunday -- for an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer that was expected to air on "Good Morning America" today and tomorrow.
Kerry campaign aides said the interview was aimed in part at shoring up Kerry's support among the predominantly female viewers of the morning show, given that he is struggling to maintain an edge among likely women voters.
The Kerry campaign is also seeking to set expectations for the debate: that viewers should focus on Bush's "wrong choices" on Iraq, the hunt for Al Qaeda terrorists, and the possible development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran.
On Monday night, Kerry squared off in a 90-minute mock debate with former Clinton White House lawyer Gregory Craig, who played Bush; campaign strategist Robert Shrum played PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer, who will moderate tomorrow night's forum. Kerry met yesterday with his national security advisers, including Rand Beers, Susan Rice, and Craig, read briefing papers, and ran through some practice answers for the debate. Last night, he planned either to rest or do another run-through with Craig. For exercise, he tossed a baseball with aides.
In Washington, meanwhile, campaign senior adviser Michael McCurry and other aides spent yesterday going over a set of post-debate talking points with senators, governors, and Democratic foreign policy advisers who will speak to reporters at the Miami debate site and in local media markets tomorrow night and Friday morning.
The Kerry campaign has put a huge premium on "winning the spin war," in the words of one campaign adviser in Wisconsin; among Democrats, there is a widespread belief that Al Gore won the 2000 debates on policy substance and leadership traits, but ended up the overall loser from those exchanges because the Bush camp lowered the expectations for their candidate and hyped some performance tics by Gore, such as his sighing in the first debate.
"We have a cast of thousands involved in our postdebate operation," McCurry said.