In a close race, Bush and Kerry know the little things can matter most. A guide for those scoring at home

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WHEN A RACE FOR PRESIDENT gets this close, no detail is too small to leave to chance. Which is how it happened that a man who once oversaw Middle East peacemaking found himself haggling last week with one of Washington's most storied power players over the matter of ... colored lights. The proposal: to allow the millions of Americans watching this Thursday's first presidential debate to see the warning signal whenever George Bush or John Kerry has exceeded his allotted time to answer a question. It was a transparent gambit by the President's representative, former Secretary of State James Baker, to raise the famously windy challenger's chances for embarrassment. "Undignified," sniffed a Kerry strategist. "It's like a game show." But Kerry's negotiator, lawyer Vernon Jordan, gave in--just as he had to Baker's earlier demand that the lecterns be an unimposing 50 in. tall and that they be placed fully 10 ft. apart, making it less likely that the 5-ft. 11-in. Bush will look miniaturized in comparison with the 6-ft. 4-in. Kerry. After Jordan and Baker finally came to an agreement at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, putting their heads together over a laptop to approve the official announcement, they headed for the bar.

That both men were in a celebratory mood might reflect the fact that each camp came away convinced it had snookered the other. Their 32-page "memorandum of understanding," which may still be revisited because of objections by the commission that sponsors the debates, stipulated everything from equivalent-size dressing rooms to a preapproval process for the pens or pencils Bush and Kerry will use to take notes. The Bush camp, knowing television viewership falls off after the first debate, made sure this week's matchup would focus on foreign policy, which they feel is the President's strong suit. Team Bush has studied old videotapes of Kerry's 1996 Massachusetts Senate re-election campaign debates to the point where advisers like Karl Rove can recite portions from memory. As a result, Bush's negotiators insisted on banning nearly all the stagecraft Kerry had used to devastating effect against his G.O.P. opponent, Governor William Weld, such as roaming from the lectern and asking direct questions. What Kerry's camp got were three debates rather than the two that Bush's campaign initially said it wanted. Getting three contests "was much more important to us than any detail of the format," says Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. A challenger always wants as many chances to stand on the same stage as the sitting President and take some shots, and Kerry thinks the debates are a place where he can shine.

For months, the candidates have fired off stump-speech gibes, ridiculed each other through surrogates and watched independent political groups hijack the race with attacks the campaigns themselves wouldn't make. But all that was shadowboxing compared with what will happen over 90 min. Thursday night at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., when the two men will come within handshaking distance for the first time in the race. According to the plan, a second debate next week, in St. Louis, Mo., will feature questions from an audience of voters with loose allegiances to the candidates. The third contest, on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz., will focus on domestic issues.

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