The Kerry campaign's Joe Lockhart just finished briefing reports on Friday's presidential debate, and his goal was clear: Raise the bar for George W. Bush, then make it harder for him to clear it.
On a conference call with reporters, Lockhart said that he expects to see "a different President Bush" at the second debate. "They know -- we know -- that his performance at the first one was not his best and not up to his level of performances at big debates," Lockhart said. "I think you'll see a different set of mannerisms tonight."
Lockhart said that Bush should excel in the town hall format because he does so many "Ask the President" events on the road. Of course, those are different than Friday night's debate. At the "Ask the President" events, the crowds are comprised solely of Bush supporters, the questioners are hand-picked, and the questions are usually of the "Thank you, President Bush, and I just want you to know that we pray for you" variety. When Bush distorts Kerry's record, the only rebuttal is a chant of "Four More Years."
Friday night, Bush and Kerry will take questions from audience members identified as "soft supporters" of one candidate or the other; the Commission on Presidential Debates wanted an audience of undecided voters, but the Bush-Cheney campaign worried that "undecided" was another way of saying "not on board yet" with the president.
Those "soft supporters" will ask the questions, but Lockhart made it clear that Kerry would pursue his own agenda, too. He'll focus on health care and the economy, but mostly on the week's news about Iraq: Paul Bremer's charge that Bush failed to send enough troops, and the Iraq Survey Group's report that it found no WMDs. Kerry will contrast those facts with Bush and Cheney's insistence that they made no mistakes in Iraq and would do everything again exactly as they did it before.
Lockhart said Bush's refusal to admit mistakes in Iraq leaves him "boxed in" and stuck with the facts on the ground there. As for Bush's speech yesterday in Pennsylvania -- a revised stump speech the campaign passed off as a significant policy address -- Lockhart said that Bush would have a hard time using such a "shrill" approach outside the friendly partisan confines of a Bush-Cheney campaign event. (He also said the cable networks, duped into showing the campaign speech, will now have to think twice when the White House says Bush will say something important.)
In the first debate, the burden was plainly on Kerry; he was behind in the polls, his campaign was struggling, and -- as bad as Bush's record has been -- he had to establish himself as a viable alternative. With Bush's bumbling performance last week -- and the momentum Kerry has picked up from it -- Lockhart says the shoe is on the other foot now. Bush has to show himself in command of the facts and his own face. Can he do it? Stay tuned. The Bush-Cheney campaign takes its turn with reporters later this afternoon.