KERRY: THE SUBSTANCE
He may have a reputation for being wooden and aloof, but Kerry is a formidable debater--he was named class orator at Yale--who has crushed opponents with his command of facts and his cool demeanor. To prepare for his encounters with Bush, he's been studying the president's winning debates against Al Gore in 2000. He's also staging mock debates against a stand-in Bush--played by Washington lawyer Greg Craig. Key issues to watch:
* Terrorism/National Security: This week's debate focuses on security concerns at home and abroad. Look for Kerry to hit Bush especially hard on Iraq. A favorite line: the president has "misled, miscalculated and mismanaged" the war and its aftermath. He'll also question Bush's handling of the war on terror, saying it hasn't made us safer. And he'll stress that, unlike Bush, he will win the trust and support of foreign allies and the United Nations.
* Economy: Kerry never misses an opportunity to slam Bush on the nation's fortunes. In the debates, he'll blame the president for losing 2.7 million jobs. He'll also go after Bush's $1.7 trillion tax cut, which he says mostly benefits the rich and caused a record $400 billion deficit. Kerry's solution: eliminate the tax cuts for the wealthy, and use the savings to fund health care and education.
* Health Care: Count on Kerry to rip into Bush's $534 billion Medicare prescription-drug plan. He says it's too expensive and benefits drug companies more than seniors. He'll also slap Bush for trying to keep people from importing cheaper drugs from Canada. Kerry will talk up his own plan to provide coverage for 27 million uninsured Americans--and stress that people will be able to choose their own doctors.
* Environment: Bush is vulnerable on green issues, and Kerry will likely scold him for trying to weaken clean-air and water standards, and for pushing to drill for oil in the Alaska wilderness.
KERRY: THE STYLE
Yes, he knows he has a likability problem. But Kerry's aides believe that when people see him one-on-one, they'll be surprised to find he's a lot less chilly and austere than he seems to be in speeches before large groups. He's even been working on smiling more. Just not at Bush. When the two meet onstage, look for Kerry to linger at the handshake--a ploy to emphasize the height difference between the two men (6 feet 4 vs. 5 feet 11). Other style points:
* The Reporting for Duty: You might be surprised to learn that Kerry is a veteran. But in case you didn't know, he'll likely point it out whenever he can--especially if Bush questions his credentials or resolve in fighting terror.
* The How Do You Do: Watch for Kerry to ask town-hall questioners about themselves, to show he's a regular guy who cares.
THE SMILE: JOHN EDWARDS
No one is spoiling more for a fight than Edwards, who is happiest in front of a jury--this time the viewing public. Don't let the sunny disposition fool you: Edwards knows how to wield a rhetorical knife. He'll likely paint Cheney as more interested in enriching his corporate friends than serving regular Americans. If Cheney attacks him for being a trial lawyer, he'll respond that he helped defend people against greedy insurance companies.
BUSH: THE SUBSTANCE
Sure, he trips over his tongue and comes up short on names, dates and details. But don't underestimate Bush in a debate. Kerry sure doesn't. In face-offs with Ann Richards and Al Gore, Bush came to win, and he did. After four years in office, he's able to speak with some authority on a wide variety of topics. He's once again hitting the briefing books and watching videos of Kerry's 1996 matches against William Weld. New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, who played Gore during Bush's 2000 debate prep, is now posing as Kerry. Bush's take on the key issues:
* Terrorism/National Security: Count on Bush to dwell on Kerry's reputation as a flip-flopper on the Iraq war, and to refer to Kerry's disastrous "I voted for it before I voted against it" line. Don't expect the president to admit any mistakes. He'll likely say he'd do it all again even knowing what he knows now, and insist the world is a much safer place now that Saddam is in prison. He'll also criticize Kerry for opposing some of the controversial Patriot Act, saying Kerry lacks the resolve to get tough on terrorists.
* Economy: Bush is unfailingly upbeat about the economy, and insists the country is rebounding because of his policies. If Kerry dwells on lost jobs, Bush will point to the 1.7 million new jobs that have been created. The president will vigorously defend his tax cut, crediting it for the recovery, and he'll argue it benefits rich and poor alike. At the same time, he'll downplay the growing deficit, saying it was caused by the high cost of the war.
* Health Care: Look for Bush to go after Kerry's health-insurance plan, saying it's just another big government program with a big price tag. He'll question Kerry's plan to pay for it by repealing some tax cuts, arguing the numbers don't add up. Instead, he'll push his plan to give $1,000 tax cuts for the uninsured.
* Environment: Watch for Bush to play up his green initiatives, like his $4 billion proposal to protect wetlands. If Kerry complains about oil drilling in Alaska, Bush will insist that new technologies make it safe and enviro-friendly.
BUSH: THE STYLE
Let's get one thing straight. The man went to Yale. Then Harvard. If George W. Bush wanted to pronounce "nuclear" correctly, he would. But the president knows that in a country weary of slick political operators, a little folksiness goes a long way. Bush carefully cultivates his "keep it simple, regular guy" persona. Watch for these signature moves:
* The Pause: Bush will sometimes wait a half beat before using a large word--say, "unilateral"--as a kind of winking apology to the audience for slipping into politico-speak.
* The Exasperation: Fingertips on chest, head far forward, pained smile. Masks frustration when he believes he's being unfairly criticized.
THE VOICE: DICK CHENEY
He's not going to win any personality contests, but the vice president is strongest in small settings, where he adopts a calm, avuncular manner that can catch his opponents off guard. Make no mistake, Cheney is a withering debater and commanding speaker with an astonishing policy arsenal at his command. Watch for him to attack Edwards as a greedy trial lawyer, and a political lightweight with little experience in foreign affairs.