Democrats Call Kerry-W. Bout Do-or-Die Day

Deni Frand will be handing out barf bags to guests at her new loft in the Flatiron district on Thursday night.

The occasion for the dinner-and-dessert party is the first Presidential debate, and the bags are meant to come in handy when President George W. Bush is speaking. Ms. Frand, the director of People for the American Way’s New York branch, and her husband, former Public Advocate Mark Green, will be playing host to some of Senator John Kerry’s top local donors.

“I’m optimistic,” said Mr. Green. “Kerry doesn’t so much have to debate Bush as beat the ridiculously low expectation that he’s a weak-kneed far-left-winger who’s impersonal and humorless.”

After a summer of unreal elation and a month of deep gloom, Democrats here and around the country are focusing their hopes on the tightly regulated debate on Sept. 30 in Coral Gables, Fla. It will be, they say, a chance for Senator Kerry to shatter President Bush’s peppy vision of Iraq—”There he goes again,” begins a recent Kerry advertisement, recalling Ronald Reagan’s 1980 debate put-down of President Jimmy Carter. It’s also an opportunity for the Massachusetts Senator to shake off Republican attacks on him as a flip-flopper.

More importantly, with Mr. Bush’s post-convention bounce pulling him within striking distance in Democratic bastions like New York and New Jersey, the debate just may represent Mr. Kerry’s last chance. This is the tipping point—his chance to expand his support beyond the Bush haters, to transform those anti-Bush rants into pro-Kerry votes.

“They’re just waiting for an opportunity to support him, and Kerry’s got to give it to them,” said Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of Harlem.

Around Manhattan, Democrats from Mr. Green to fund-raiser Sally Minard will be hosting debate parties to cheer their man on. But as Mr. Kerry’s supporters look ahead with a mix of confidence and apprehension, other Democrats recall that with the opportunity comes a risk.

“People keep analyzing these things as a great opportunity for Kerry—his last opportunity to define himself,” said Democratic operative Chris Lehane. “But usually what happens is that someone makes a mistake, and that ends up defining the debates, which end up defining the last four weeks of the campaign.”

Mr. Lehane should know: He was Al Gore’s press secretary in 2000. This time four years ago, he recalled, he was packed with other senior aides into a little room off the main auditorium at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, watching the Presidential debate on television. As Mr. Gore slashed and George W. Bush smiled, a speaker phone barked out instant results from groups of undecided voters in swing states, who were registering their reactions on numerical dials.

“Our dial groups thought Gore did very well,” Mr. Lehane said ruefully.

Down at Gore headquarters in Nashville, meanwhile, speechwriter Kenneth Baer thought his candidate was winning. “There were times when Bush would say something that was factually inaccurate or so blatantly indefensible, and Gore would stick him on it,” he said. “There were some hoots.”

The debate coaches recruited by the Associated Press to score the debate also handed it to Mr. Gore on points, but it turned out they were the only ones. The judgment of the media and of the polls was that Mr. Gore had hurt himself by playing into negative impressions he’d already made. He’d seemed supercilious, some said, and the Bush campaign leapt on his confusion over a visit to Texas to advance the story that Mr. Gore was a serial exaggerator.

“In a Presidential debate, either of the candidates can memorably do themselves in,” Mr. Lehane said.

Memorable Moments

The former Gore aide has a point. Since the quadrennial debates became regular in 1976, they’ve been defined more often than not by candidates who play dangerously to a negative stereotype. There was Gerald Ford in 1976, fighting a perception that he was dumb but asserting that Poland was not under Soviet influence. In 1988, Michael Dukakis—already labeled weak and unemotional—gave a mild answer to Bernard Shaw’s question, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

The current President’s father, four years later, was best remembered for an uncomfortable glance at his watch, seen as evidence of his detachment and discomfort with his public role. (Perhaps mindful of this moment, the current President’s negotiators attempted to bar debate organizers from broadcasting images of the candidate who is not speaking, though their efforts appear to have been frustrated.)

Then, of course, there was Al Gore’s sighing, head-shaking and straining at the bit—body language that wound up overshadowing the debate’s content.

The Republican line of attack this year is even clearer than it was four years ago: Whatever Mr. Kerry says, it will be called a flip-flop. That stunt, complete with young Republican operatives dressed in mangy dolphin outfits, can be tiresome to report on, since it’s empty of debate on the issues. But it’s equally hard for Mr. Kerry to shake off: It’s a one-size-fits-all response to anything he says.

“He’s going to need to address that, and it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Kieran Mahoney, a Republican strategist. “If you start throwing new bombs, people are going to say, ‘Where did that idea come from?’”

But Mr. Mahoney added that the debates could also offer Mr. Kerry his last great opportunity to make his case that the President’s version of the war in Iraq doesn’t match the reality on the ground.

“The stakes are very high for Kerry in this one,” he said. “If he does not change the dynamic of the race in some fundamental way, he is more likely to lose than to win.”

Indeed, a good debate performance can revive a staggering candidacy and offer a chance to puncture the negative story line, be it flip-flopping, weak or just a little crazy.

In 1980, Mr. Reagan “went into that debate with Carter with lots of people really wanting to dump Jimmy Carter for a lot of reasons, but frankly being frightened by Reagan,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “They thought—and this was especially true among women—that he was impulsive, that he might plunge the country into war on a whim.

“He came across as very endearing, very likable,” Mr. Baker concluded.

This time around, said Roger Stone, a Republican consultant, Mr. Kerry needs to communicate with voters who don’t yet feel they know him. “These people will be inclined to go with the devil they know unless Kerry can fill in the blanks,” he said. “This is his opportunity to fill in the blanks.”

But Mr. Baker and other observers said this year’s debates, more than ever, will be judged through partisan lenses. The Democratic National Convention, for example, boosted CNN’s ratings; the Republican National Convention sent Fox surging past the three major networks. So many expect the debate’s “winner” to be less a matter of consensus than debate.

“There’s no objective standard,” he said. “People will go to their favorite news source and accept that verdict.”

—additional reporting by Lizzy Ratner