The candidates will not be allowed to address each other
directly, leave their lecterns or even use non-approved writing
utensils for note-taking. But despite the meticulously scripted
format, student political leaders say the first presidential
debate, which will take place at 9 p.m. tonight, will be much like
televised debates of the past — that is, at least as much
about image as it is about issues.

Tonight’s debate in Florida, the first of three scheduled
between Bush and Kerry, will focus on foreign policy. The debate is
widely expected to be a defining moment of the campaign —
especially for Kerry, who analysts say has yet to make a connection
with a large portion of the voters who are dissatisfied with
Bush.

The debate will provide Kerry with his best chance yet to
clearly define his position on the war in Iraq. Kerry, who in
recent weeks has dramatically sharpened his message against Bush,
is expected to use the continuing violence in Iraq to convince
voters that Bush has mismanaged the war and neglected other
dangers.

Bush will likely stick to the message he has used throughout the
campaign, attempting to paint Kerry as indecisive and weak on
defense and defending the war for bringing democracy to Iraq

College Republicans chair Allison Jacobs and College Democrats
chair Ramya Raghavan said student interest in the debates this year
is high, and predicted that the debates would be important in
shaping and reinforcing voters’ views of each
candidate’s character.

“I think the overall demeanor of the candidates is going
to be important,” Jacobs said. “It’s going to be
how they lay out their issues, how they present them, if they have
a clear plan.”

Raghavan said Kerry’s “East-Coast, elitist”
reputation will be hard to shake, given the wide differences
between the two candidates’ speaking styles.

“While George Bush has the same background, he always
comes across as this common cowboy type,” she said.
“That always seems to resonate with the American people for
some reason.”

Although Kerry has more debating experience, Raghavan said, the
average voter may not respond well to his “more intellectual
approach to the issues.”

“I think George Bush will try to go with his usual
simplistic strategy of repeating the same things over and over,
which has proven effective for him in the past,” she said.
“But I think that John Kerry has a higher level of thinking,
which might actually hurt him.”

Students who want to watch the debate in a group setting have at
least two options. The College Democrats and College Republicans
are each holding events tomorrow night, and both are open to
non-members.

The College Democrats and the Washtenaw County Democratic Party
will be sponsoring a debate-watching party, featuring an appearance
by State Sen. Liz Brater (D – Ann Arbor) and entertainment by a
Cuban jazz band, from 7 to 11 p.m. at the Cavern Club on 210 S.
First Ave.

The College Republicans will be watching the debate in the
Anderson Room of the Michigan Union at 9 p.m. Jacobs said the group
plans to hold a joint event with the College Democrats for the
third debate on Oct. 13.

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