America - Andrew Stephen doubts television can save Kerry

Kerry is pinning his hopes on the televised debates but Bush has never lost such a contest, despite

What a brilliant phrasemonger John Kerry is. His Republican opponents, having succeeded in turning his heroism in Vietnam into a minus rather than a positive, are savaging him every way he looks. Yet he and his advisers on the campaign trail have managed to come up with a brilliant new slogan that will surely propel him straight into the White House - and which, presumably, is why he keeps using it over and over again in his speeches. "The 'W'," he says of George W Bush, "stands for Wrong."

Yes, I am being sarcastic, I'm afraid. It's just that these days it is hard not to wince every time Kerry tries something new. To make it worse for him, the Republicans have honed their campaign attacks with a killer instinct - and, as a result, Kerry is reeling, punch-drunk from each succeeding blow.

If only the war in Iraq had been planned as meticulously as Bush's election campaign, which has been brilliantly ruthless: indeed, General Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton's drugs tsar, says that military tactics in Iraq are now being tailored to meet the political ends of Bush-Cheney.

With less than 45 days to go, the Democrats are almost terminally dispirited, while the Republicans salivate. Bush is two points ahead in my personal opinion poll, while the latest public polls are more alarming than ever for the Democrats: Bush's job approval rating has jumped to 57 per cent, while male voters prefer Bush by 56 per cent compared to just 34 per cent for Kerry. The Kerry campaign team has pulled out of TV advertising spots in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri - thus in effect ceding them, at least for the time being, to Bush-Cheney.

Kerry, despairing Democrats tell me, insists on believing that he is doing everything right in this campaign. He is refraining from personal attacks on his opponents while the Republicans savage him to bits. He believes, I am told, that if he remains calm and unruffled - a steady hand on the tiller and so forth - he will come out victorious in the end. He is telling his people that they should recall the 1996 campaign for his Senate seat against Bill Weld, then Republican governor of Massachusetts. The opinion polls predicted that he would lose, but Kerry kept calm and finally trounced Weld. And, he says, this was because he got the better of Weld in the locally televised debates.

That is the mantra you now hear privately from Democrats - that all is not lost, because the presidential debates are still to come and Kerry will eviscerate Bush in them.

Not a single televised debate between the two candidates, in fact, has yet been firmly arranged. And Bush, despite his famed predilection for mangled syntax, has never actually lost a political debate on television. Kerry, for his part, may have debating skills of the kind that won him prizes at St Paul's prep school and Yale, but he has never been on the national stage in the way he now finds himself.

The Republicans, lowering expectations for their candidate, have publicly compared Kerry's brilliance in debate to that of none other than Cicero - thereby creating ludicrous expectations for their opponent, and simultaneously setting the scene for Bush's homespun Texan persona to triumph.

The very subject of the debates is now a focus of furious campaigning strategies by both sides. The Commission on Presidential Debates, established by Democrats and Republicans in 1987, came out early with a proposed schedule: the first debate on 30 September in Coral Gables, Florida, the second on 8 October in St Louis, Missouri, and the final one on 14 October in Tempe, Arizona. They propose one vice-presidential debate between Our Dick and John Edwards on 5 October in Cleveland, Ohio.

All four televised meetings would thus be in battleground states, and the gladiatorial confrontations of 2004 would all be over 18 days before voters go to the polls. However, both sides have yet to agree to all this, and Bush (as the incumbent who is ahead in the polls) is better able to dictate terms, even threatening that there will be no debates. Or just one: that would probably be ideal for Bush, who would have to master intense briefing material only once.

But in the expectation that the debates will happen, both sides have brought in teams of thousands to negotiate the details, minor and major. Bush-Cheney has heavyweights such as James Baker, Bush the Elder's secretary of state and chief of staff, leading the talks; the Democrats are led by Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and quintessential Washington insider.

These are the kinds of people hashing over whether, for example, the candidates will sit or stand - and, if they stand, whether one or both will be allowed foot platforms so that they appear to be of equal height (Bush is seven inches shorter than Kerry). They are also yet to reach agreement on the length of the

debates: the commission proposes that each contest be 90 minutes

long, but the Bush-Cheney camp is holding out for 60 minutes.

Bush-Cheney is also rebuffing proposals that at least one of the debates be like a town-hall meeting, with real people asking questions. This is not at all the kind of setting that makes Dubbya comfortable, but one in which Bill Clinton excelled in a 1992 debate (roundly beating the elder Bush who, I well remember, looked longingly at his watch at one point). The Bush-Cheney team would prefer a debate on the highly anodyne Larry King Live, where the host could be relied upon not to ask any searching questions on say, Iraq, or healthcare, or the economy.

The accepted wisdom is that, in any case, only the first debate really counts; four years ago Al Gore ruined his own performance by sighing histrionically while Bush spoke. I'm told that Bush has been practising with Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, taking the role of Kerry; Cheney's practice opponent is a Republican congressman from Ohio, Rob Portman. Kerry is relying on a lawyer, Ron Klain, but is now spending at least an hour every week reading through Bush's speeches.

There were no televised debates at all until 1960, when Richard Nixon's famously sweaty face did him in against John F Kennedy. After that there were no more until 1976, when Gerald Ford insisted that Poland was not part of the Soviet bloc. Political folklore is littered with other supposed turning points: in the 1980 confrontation between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, still the most watched presidential debate in history, Reagan interrupted Carter's flow of facts and statistics, saying with apparent geniality: "There you go again!" I think, though, that another statement by Reagan was actually more significant. Asked whether he could name the president of Iran, he replied: "Well, I don't know his name. But let me tell you, if I become president, he's going to get to know mine."

The 2000 debates between Bush and Gore had audiences of between 37.5 and 46.6 million - certainly big, but considerably fewer than the 130 million who watched last year's Super Bowl.

In reality, both this year's candidates have good records for their televised debates. Bush has always somehow managed - for instance, in his 1994 debate with Ann Richards, the Democrat who was then governor of Texas, and in his 2000 debate with Gore - to contrive an image that exudes aggression in an "Aw, shucks", man-of-the-people manner of exactly the sort that Reagan used so skilfully against Carter. In his previous debates, too, Kerry avoided the portentous manner with which he addresses public gatherings, and adopted instead a tone that was quieter and better suited for television.

I suspect the Democrats are right when they say privately that Kerry's only hope now is that he can inflict mortal damage on Bush in the televised debates - reason enough for the president still to say no to them, despite his team's exhaustive preparations. Assuming that they happen, Kerry will be vastly better briefed than Bush. He will be able to recite relevant facts and figures in the Carterian, if not quite the Ciceronian, manner. Bush, however, has to produce only one good line in that Reaganesque, proletarian persona . . . and Kerry will be sunk.

W may stand for Wrong, but John Kerry will have to do much more than endlessly repeat a line like that if he is to give himself a realistic chance of defeating George Bush in November.