Campaign 2004 has all the earmarks of an election that could turn on the presidential debates. John Kerry’s electoral fortunes depend heavily on his ability to ease concerns about his leadership. He must also convince voters that Bush has mishandled the situation in Iraq and has not done a good job with many domestic issues, including the economy. For his part, George Bush must successfully defend his policies at home and abroad, and cast Kerry as ill-equipped to lead a nation at war.
While the candidates emphasize these themes every day on the campaign trail, the debates guarantee them a vast and attentive audience. In the most recent Pew Research Center poll (Sept. 8-13), 61% said they are very likely to watch the debates, as compared with just 43% who said that prior to the presidential debates four years ago. Interest in the debates among independents, in particular, has increased dramatically from the 2000 campaign.