TALKING THE TALK

The BC04 high command, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes and their top aides, watched the first debate on TV monitors set up inside a racquetball court at the University of Miami's Wellness Center. They failed to see that their candidate was losing. Mostly, they were waiting, and hoping, for Kerry to say something that could be used against him. When, late in the debate, the Democratic candidate accommodated by rambling on about a "global test" that America must pass before intervening abroad, Rove exulted, "Oh, my God!" He could visualize TV commercials that could be fed to Red State Americans who were suspicious of the United Nations and regarded Kerry as vaguely French.

Hughes, however, was bothered. She observed that NBC appeared to be putting the president on a split screen whenever Kerry spoke. The ground rules for the debate expressly forbade "reaction shots," but the Bush team knew that the networks would ignore that stipulation. Still, Hughes was irritated at the frequency of the split screen, and she could see right away that one of the ground rules had been a mistake. The podiums were each 1.3 meters high, but since Kerry was at least 13 centimeters taller than Bush, the president appeared to be peering over the rostrum like a schoolboy at a candy counter. Hughes also noticed that Bush appeared to be fidgeting and grimacing. She made a face. "I wish he wouldn't do that," she said to no one in particular.

The others said nothing. Rove didn't even notice Bush's grimace. They had all seen it before, almost every day. That was the way the president was, charming and funny sometimes, but also caustic and petulant and impatient. Bush never let anyone doubt that he was in charge, and his subordinates admired him for it. They always quieted and stood when he came into a room. If Bush seemed a little entitled, well, he was entitled. He was a legacy of an aristocratic family, grandson of a senator, son of a president, born to rule. His father, normally the most gracious of men, had sometimes explained himself by saying, "Because I'm president and you're not." George W didn't put it that way. But his body language did.

To prepare the president for the debates, a vast machine had churned away. In fluorescent-lit cubicles at RNC headquarters in Washington, the "oppo" (opposition) research team had spent months poring over tapes of Kerry's past debates, looking for weaknesses to exploit. They found few. The oppo team produced a thick binder titled "2004 John Kerry Debate Analysis"; researchers concluded that he had been a remarkably consistent debater over the years, respectful but aggressive, rarely hitting home runs but rarely striking out.

A legal team of GOP heavyweights led by former secretary of State James Baker had negotiated 32 pages of strict rules. The Bushies wanted to limit answers to two minutes, figuring that the windy Kerry would run over, while banning direct questions between the candidates. The Democrats were represented by the equally formidable Democratic superlawyer Vernon Jordan. Each side made concessions: the Republicans agreed to three instead of two debates, and the Democrats allowed the first debate to be solely on foreign policy, supposedly Bush's strong suit.

Vast numbers of Americans watched the debates--more than 62 million on the first night, about 35 percent more than tuned in for the first Bush-Gore debate in 2000. The experts gravely intoned that 9/11 had raised the stakes, but it may just be that the debates had become like reality TV.

The Bush team had gone in cocky. Professional pessimist Matthew Dowd had been going on about Kerry as the "best debater since Cicero," but most BC04 operatives believed their own propaganda, that Kerry was a windbag and a loser. Adman Mark McKinnon convinced himself that the president was ready. "He's in the zone," McKinnon began e-mailing reporters. "He's really loose, he's ready," McKinnon said to White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett shortly before the debate. "Eh, not so sure about that," muttered Bartlett. The president actually seemed tight and a little tired from pressing the flesh with hurricane-weary Floridians.

In the press room watching the debate, the White House regulars, the beat reporters from the big dailies like The Washington Post and The New York Times and the major networks, did not notice anything unusual about the president's demeanor or body language. (They were watching a live feed from the debate hall, not the network's coverage, so they did not see split-screen reaction shots.) But among the punditocracy, the talking heads of cable TV who rendered judgment, thumbs up or down, the conventional wisdom quickly congealed: Bush had been as whiny and wriggly as a spoiled child. Kerry had been cool and calm. Dignified. Presidential.

In Spin Alley, where campaign officials parried with jostling reporters, the Bush team might as well have been trying to beat back the tide. "I don't think he sounded defensive," said Dowd, sounding defensive.

At first the BC04 team blamed the liberal bias of the mainstream press or the media's horse-race obsession. The press needed to close the gap, to make Kerry look like the Comeback Kid, the Bushies rationalized. There was some truth to these excuses, but the state of denial soon wore off. Not officially: at BC04 headquarters, where only good news and positive thinking were tolerated, the first debate was treated like the crazy uncle in the attic, a subject not to be mentioned in polite company. But the consultants and midlevel aides traded furtive e-mails and subversive jokes. One Bush adman, Fred Davis, pointed out in an e-mail to ad chieftain McKinnon that the news wasn't all bad: people who heard the debate on the radio thought Bush had won. McKinnon dryly replied, "Working to make the next debate radio only."

The cocky mood among the top brass had evaporated within about 24 hours. The backslapping and high-fives gave way to a kind of focused grimness and some quiet backbiting. The one person who had always leveled with Bush was his wife, Laura. It had been Laura who, many years earlier, had delivered an ultimatum to her husband when he was drinking heavily: "It's either the Jim Beam or me." Now she said to him, "I don't know what happened. You've got to be yourself, and you weren't."

The problem was that Bush had been himself. Not the playful, warm man he could be, but the peevish, hyper man he also was. He had shown his true feelings toward Kerry. His whole body and manner cried out that he was a president with a war to fight who didn't want to be bothered trading verbal jabs with the kind of supercilious know-it-all he had loathed since Yale days.

In the racquetball court at the wellness center reserved for the Kerry-Edwards team, the cheering was loud and raucous. "He's crushing him!" cried Bob Shrum repeatedly. Wearing his trademark good-luck scarf, Kerry's speechwriter (and still friend) was wired tight. When Kerry veered into a discussion of the Kyoto Protocol, Shrum threw down his cell phone. But at the end of the debate he was ecstatic, like all of Kerry's aides. They were waiting for the candidate when he stepped from his limousine. As they stood applauding, Kerry smiled and administered hugs.

One Kerry adviser, John Sasso, was already thinking about the second debate, to be held in St. Louis on Oct. 8. "All we did was get back in the game," said Sasso. "There's nothing to be giddy about."

Kerry and Sasso made an odd couple. Sasso was the son of an Italian steamfitter, more at home in a local union hall than Kerry's home on Beacon Hill. Conservatively dressed in a white shirt and tie, the short, stocky Sasso was low-key but direct with Kerry: "You've got to do this in 10 minutes instead of 20," he'd say as Kerry took the stage for a speech. Insofar as he was capable of obeying anyone's advice, Kerry heeded Sasso's. The two men were the same age, and peers: Sasso had been Gov. Michael Dukakis's chief of staff when Kerry was lieutenant governor back in the early 1980s.

Though the arrival of Sasso on the plane and the intervention of the Clintonistas were seen as a slap to campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, she was relieved to have Sasso onboard. She had become overwhelmed, unable to run headquarters and the plane, too. She appreciated Sasso's impact on the chronically late Kerry. When Sasso "says, 'C'mon, we're going,' it's harder for Kerry to say, 'Not yet'," said Cahill.

Sasso, who had last run a presidential campaign in 1988, warned Kerry, "I'm rusty." But he was better than anyone else at diagnosing Kerry's problems and fixing them, or trying to. When he came aboard in September, he found a candidate who had turned himself into a pincushion. Dazed and dispirited by the sorry state of his campaign, Kerry had been inviting personal criticism from pretty much anyone who had an opinion. The critics had unloaded on him, and then they didn't let up. By the time he reached out to Sasso, Kerry was drowning in negative energy from all around.

Sasso wanted it to stop. He put out the word that there was to be no more direct criticism of the candidate, period. Complaints should be directed to Sasso and no further. Teresa was not exempt. Sasso told her that she was being too hard on her husband. "He needs to be optimistic and focused," Sasso told her. Teresa got the message and promised to back off. Alex and Vanessa also spent less time cajoling and critiquing their father and more time giving him breaks for humor and affection.

Debate prep for Kerry, which had begun back in July on Nantucket, had gone badly at first. The candidate staged a mock debate for a focus group that twisted dials to measure his performance. The numbers were low. With his relentless self-criticism, Kerry crammed harder. Advisers tried to think up clever lines. Congressman Barney Frank suggested that Kerry deadpan to Bush, "I used to get really upset about how much you distort my record until I heard how much you distort your own." But quips and one-liners really weren't Kerry's style, so he decided to give up attempts at humor. To cure him of his long-windedness and teach him to keep his answers under two minutes, Kerry's handlers brought in the biggest, loudest buzzer they could find, "something between electroshock therapy and the electric fence for dogs," said debate coach Michael Sheehan.

Allotted 45 minutes for the predebate "walk-through" in Miami, Kerry took 43, asking to see a "freeze frame" of him standing at the podium, engaging in earnest debate over neckties. (Blue? No, Bush wore blue ties. Red? Yes, but not too bright...) Bush, by contrast, breezed through in 10 minutes.

To play the part of Bush in debate prep, the Kerry team brought in Gregory Craig, a skillful Washington litigator who could imitate Bush's slow speaking style but think very quickly on his feet. Craig was slicing up Kerry for his infamous voted-for-and-against "flip-flop" on Iraq, when Kerry, frustrated, stopped the practice session. "I can't believe I'm getting killed over a stupid thing I said, and this guy has totally screwed up the war--and he's not paying a price for it," he blurted out. Kerry's outburst became the foundation for his most effective debate line: "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Kerry was looking for a way to turn the tables on Bush. For most of the campaign he had shied from trying to make a campaign issue out of Osama bin Laden's escape from his mountain hideout in Tora Bora in December 2001. The campaign's fear was that the United States would capture bin Laden before the election, trumping Kerry. But Ron Klain, a veteran Democratic operative brought in to help prep him for the debates, urged him to pound Bush on the failure to bring bin Laden to justice. It was a way of sharpening Kerry's larger criticism, that Bush was fighting the wrong war by invading Iraq. The real enemy was bin Laden and Al Qaeda, not Saddam Hussein and Iraq. At the debate, Kerry's harping on bin Laden worked perfectly to enrage Bush. "Of course, I know it was bin Laden who attacked us," Bush spluttered.

For their part, John Edwards's handlers expected Vice President Dick Cheney to try to savage the Kerry-Edwards ticket during the veep debate on Oct. 5. So Edwards's marching orders were: "Go get him." The former trial lawyer was forceful but measured, saying to Cheney, "You are still not being straight with the American people." In the debate, Cheney was a little grumpy but not as harsh as he routinely appeared to be on the campaign trail. The debate was essentially a draw; it did not move the numbers either one way or the other.

But the news climate seemed to be turning against the president. Bush's former proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, was quoted as saying that he had futilely urged the president to send more troops to Iraq (accosted by angry Bush aides, Bremer meekly protested that his remarks had been off the record). The CIA issued a final report on WMD in Iraq. Rove was furious, as usual, at the press coverage. The "pro-Kerry New York Times," he fumed, played up the CIA's finding that Saddam had destroyed his WMD stockpiles. Buried was the judgment that Saddam had been playing cat and mouse, hoping to lull the United Nations into dropping oil sanctions against Iraq so he could start building up his WMD arsenal again.

Then there was the annoying buzz over the mysterious lump on Bush's back during the first debate. Some viewers thought they had observed an odd bulge in the president's suit coat when the cameras viewed him from behind. The Internet lit up with conspiracy theories. The bulge was actually a box, suggested some bloggers--a transmitter that would allow Bush's aides to coach him while he groped for answers. The proof was flimsy or speculative, and the White House firmly denied that Bush had anything unusual affixed to his back. But the back-and-forth just dredged up old jokes about Bush as Junior, the puppet president, and undercut his hard-won standing as a war leader.

The answer to Bush's predicament, Rove & Co. believed, was to hit harder at Kerry. Bush was loaded for bear when he stepped onto the stage at Washington University in St. Louis for the "town meeting" on Oct. 8. His handlers were nervous: one of his advisers forlornly predicted that if the president blew this one, the election was lost. Just before the debate, Bush had insisted on being left alone for 15 minutes--unusual for a man who likes to be surrounded by company. His handlers hoped that their man would feed off audience response. The questioners at the town meeting were just a few meters away, arrayed in a semicircle around the candidates. Bush winked and japed and chuckled ("heh, heh"). For the most part, the audience just stared back in stony silence. The citizens, undecided voters selected by the Gallup polling organization, had been preparing questions and listening to instructions all day long in the chilly auditorium.

Bush did not have a great night, but he did not have a bad one, either, and his handlers decided to put on a little victory dance to gin up momentum in Spin Alley. A half hour before the debate ended, they began appearing amid the reporters, high-fiving each other. The debate was in the bag! Or so they pretended. They actually believed Bush had eked out a tie, which was by and large the verdict of the press corps, though the overnight polls seemed to credit Kerry with another win.

Kerry's team thought their man had won round two as well. He was cool and calm, presidential enough, though there was something slightly mechanical about his performance. One more debate win, and he could ride the momentum to victory on Election Day. Kerry felt anything but relaxed and confident, however, on the morning of the third debate, on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Arizona. He was irritated by a headline in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, newspaper, time to break the tie. Kerry was tense and whiny: "I don't understand this," he groused to an aide. "I've beaten the guy twice now--and somehow it's a tie. Why is this a must-win for me? When is it going to be a must-win for him?"

For all their bluster and spin, Bush's advisers were very worried for their man. The format was the same as in the first debate, and the topic--domestic affairs--was not the president's strong suit.

Smiling often, standing straight, the president was a stark contrast to the hunched and scowling Bush of the first debate. Still, the transformation was perhaps a little too obvious. Some aides worried that Bush had repeated the mistake of Al Gore in 2000--Bush's opponent in those debates had been too hot in the first debate, too cold in the second and, as the guileless Gore himself had put it, "just right" in the third. The imagery was all wrong: the president was supposed to be the steady one, not changing personas from debate to debate.

Kerry was sure that he had won the final debate. But in a conference room a few minutes away from the auditorium of Arizona State University, Republican pollster Ed Goeas knew better. About 30 minutes into the debate, Kerry was asked by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS whether he thought homosexuality was a matter of choice or birth. In his answer Kerry brought up Dick Cheney's gay daughter Mary. Goeas's focus group--five Republicans, five Democrats, five independents--had a "huge negative reaction," Goeas later recalled. When the debate was over, 11 of the 15 cast votes for Bush.

Kerry's remark was a break for the Bush campaign. The ensuing flap diverted attention from Bush's performance and put the spotlight squarely on Kerry. Mary Beth Cahill did not help matters by saying after the debate that Mary Cheney was "fair game" (Cheney was, in fact, long out of the closet). Kerry's aides insisted that the candidate's remark had not been intentional, that he was just trying to say something nice about Mary but sounded "klutzy" instead. (Indeed, both Tad Devine and Shrum had grimaced when they heard Kerry make the remark.)

The explanations were too late. So-called security moms who had been initially inclined to vote for Bush, then swung toward Kerry after the first two debates, were put off by his seemingly gratuitous attempt to drag Cheney's daughter into the race. Kerry's momentum was stopped. With less than three weeks to go, both sides were claiming narrow leads. The race looked dead even.

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