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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The stakes could hardly be higher, with the debates starting at a moment when the race has once again tightened. A TIME poll conducted last week shows President Bush's advantage shrinking to 6 points from the 11-point lead he enjoyed a week after the Republican Convention. What's more, with better than 1 in 3 voters saying they plan to watch all the debates and an additional 49% saying they will watch at least some, the matches may be the test of whether Bush and Kerry will overcome, or confirm, the doubts each has tried to sow about the other in the minds of voters. According to the poll, of the 19% of voters who claim they are undecided or could still change their minds, 69% say the debates may be what clinches it for them.

There are some obvious traps for each candidate. Even as Bush's team was congratulating itself for rearranging the debate order to put foreign policy first, there were forces at work that might undercut that advantage. Kerry finally seems to be finding his voice on the Iraq war, just as the news from that country is being dominated anew by beheadings and car bombings. In TIME's poll, taken a week after Kerry launched his broadside that Bush was "living in a fantasy world of spin" about the real outlook in Iraq, only 37% of voters say Bush has been truthful in describing the situation there, whereas 55% say the situation is worse than the President says. And 51% echo Kerry's contention that the U.S. action in Iraq has made the world more dangerous, up from 46% in early September.

For Kerry, the contests are a badly needed opportunity to reintroduce himself to the electorate. About 1 in 5 voters, according to the TIME poll, still don't know enough about him to have an opinion. That segment of the population has actually grown in recent weeks. One perception that has taken root is that Kerry is a flip-flopper. Only 37% of voters say they believe he sticks to his positions; 84% say that about Bush. So it could be all but fatal for Kerry to do or say anything in the debates that might reinforce that image.

With so much on the line, Bush started prepping this summer and has had occasional full-length dress rehearsals, but the pace picked up last weekend at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who played Al Gore in the 2000 drill, stood in for Kerry, and admaker Mark McKinnon assumed the role of the first debate moderator. It all took place in a one-story building known as the Conference Center, where Bush practiced behind a lectern and aides flashed cue cards that told him how much time he had left, just as officials will at the debate. Sessions were scheduled for 9 p.m. E.T. so that the early-to-bed Bush could set his body clock to the precise time of the real thing.

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