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Bush Cramming for First Debate

December 1, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Any misstep in his first debate could renew questions about George W. Bush’s readiness for the presidency, so he is cramming for Thursday’s event in a Texas-sized way.

Aides have scoured news reports and press releases for every mention of the Texas governor by his rivals, looking for potential debate-night attacks. They say looking through two years of transcripts helped prepare Bush for his Nov. 21 interview on ``Meet the Press.″

On Monday and Tuesday, top advisers also trooped to the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, Texas, where they participated with Bush in prep sessions held at times around a table or ring of chairs.

During one, an adviser said, an aide told the governor that publisher Steve Forbes thinks Bush’s education plan gives too much power to the government.

Bush’s response was quickly critiqued and sharpened by the group, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

``I think the stakes are high for Bush because he’s missed the other forums, causing there to be a doubt-factor in a first primary state like New Hampshire. That doesn’t mean he can’t overcome it,″ said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996.

While the Bush campaign publicly downplays the importance of Thursday’s debate, everyone involved knows the front-runner’s presence will change the dynamic from the three earlier debates that Bush skipped.

Bush, who planned to avoid debates until January, has now agreed to three in December as Sen. John McCain of Arizona has risen in the polls to pull even with Bush in New Hampshire.

``We have been successful in New Hampshire with or without any other candidates alongside us,″ said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky. ``I think the increased attention on this debate could certainly help us.″

In a hint of the needling that Bush can expect, the campaign of radio talk show host Alan Keyes said he didn’t need to do anything special to prepare for Bush, despite the heightened interest.

``This is the advantage of having a candidate knowing where he stands on the issues,″ said Keyes campaign manager Dan Godzich.

Along with Bush, McCain and Keyes, others participating will be conservative activist Gary Bauer, publisher Steve Forbes and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

The 90-minute session will take place in the Manchester, N.H., studios of WMUR-TV and will be broadcast nationally on the Fox News Channel.

As of Tuesday, 250 media members had requested accreditation to cover the event, dwarfing the crowd for the other debates.

Because of the novelty of Bush’s appearance, his campaign expects he will be the target of the other candidates and under a media microscope.

The debate is the last of three major tests for Bush before the primary season kicks into high gear next year.

With questions raised about his intellect and his stumble in a pop foreign policy quiz given by a TV reporter, Bush delivered a major foreign policy speech on Nov. 19, followed it up two days later with a live, hourlong TV interview, and reluctantly agreed to his first December debate. He will appear in a second debate in Arizona on Dec. 6 and a third in Iowa on Dec. 13.

Bush’s advisers say repeatedly he is a candidate who doesn’t need much coaching for high-profile events, yet they spend hours preparing him. They argue that his rivals do the same, although out of the spotlight.

The idea of trying to glean questions from media and candidate criticism of Bush paid off in the recent interview on NBC’s ``Meet the Press.″

Before the show, aides dug back through two years of transcripts to find every question that host Tim Russert had asked guests about Bush. The research ``turned out to be a road map″ to the questions Russert put to the governor, one adviser said.

The campaign has also worked to make Bush feel more comfortable during his formal addresses.

Before the foreign policy speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, his campaign set up a lectern and TelePrompTer in a conference room at a nearby hotel so Bush could practice delivering his speech.

Bush responded with a near-flawless performance.

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