Women will be watching the president carefully in the debates, not only for the policy positions he takes, but for the way he makes his case. Kerry's stern, almost dour, approach will aim at scaring core constituencies. He'll try to frighten moms into thinking they're less safe with George W. Bush in the White House, that Bush is trigger-happy, that he has a secret plan to draft their sons (and maybe even daughters). The president must be reassuring without going on the offensive and lashing out at Kerry. Bush doesn't have to prove he's a tough guy. He has to resist the temptation to counterpunch when it would distract from the positive messages he wants to get out. These debates won't be scored on debaters' points; they will be one or lost by the man who best demonstrates steadfastness, trustworthiness, character and vision.
Bush's objective should not be to best Kerry in an argument. In fact, the less the president engages in arguing with or directly attacking his opponent, the better off he'll be. If he derides or belittles Kerry, he'll end up looking petty -- especially to women viewers. Let Kerry be the in-your-face attacker, an unlikable bully. The president should remain presidential. That doesn't mean he shouldn't defend his record and the tough decisions he's been forced to make, but he should do so without acting defensive.
The president goes into these debates in good position. He's ahead in the polls, which should give him the confidence he needs to perform well. Bush sometimes has the tendency to be too wary when he thinks he's in the enemy's lair. That's been the case in some of his press conferences and interviews. He seems most likely to mangle his words and syntax when he's trying his best to be careful. If he can ignore his interlocutors' antagonism and not take his opponent's bait, he'll win these debates. More importantly, his performance could consign the gender gap to the dustbin of history.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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