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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Past performances suggest that both sides have plenty to fear in their three engagements. "You will never see a more personable John Kerry than in these debates," predicts Weld, who in June met at Bush headquarters with imagemaker Karen Hughes and White House communications director Dan Bartlett and since then has been offering tips to campaign manager Ken Mehlman. His warning to them, Weld told TIME, is this: "Watch out for this guy. He is incredibly quick and well versed on substance. Don't expect him to make a mistake or to come across as aloof. This is his turf." Kerry, after all, founded a debating society at his prep school. Bush's chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, says he knows Kerry's record and is not spinning when he describes the challenger as "the best debater ever to run for President" and even "better than Cicero." But Weld's advice apparently has yet to seep in. Bush's top advisers believe it is unlikely that Kerry will be able to make the personal connection with voters that can be so important in presidential debates. "The biggest test for Kerry," says a senior Bush adviser, "is whether anyone wants him in their living room."

Weld learned otherwise--the hard way. The well-liked Massachusetts Governor knew he was in trouble from the first of his eight debates with Kerry, when he pointed to the mother of a slain police officer in the audience and challenged the Senator to explain his opposition to the death penalty. Kerry began by calling cop killers "scum," then said, "I know something about killing," understanding that nearly every voter watching would make the connection that Weld, who had a bad back, had got out of going to Vietnam. "He then went on about his experiences in Vietnam," Weld recalls. "Everybody forgot what the question had been."

But if Kerry is at his rhetorical best when he's feeling the heat, it's not the only thing the Bush camp has noticed about him. Even as Kerry was turning the tables on Weld over the death penalty, he kept wiping a dribble of perspiration that was creeping from his right temple to his eye. "He's a sweater," chortles a G.O.P. official, "and women don't like sweaters." That's why Bush's team was happy to have the Kerry campaign climb down from its demand that the debate hall be chilled to below 70?. The Jordan-Baker agreement stipulates that the debate commission use "best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature according to industry standards." Whatever those are.

If Kerry's strongest debating weapon is agility, Bush's is the discipline to stick to his talking points. "No matter what the question, he delivers the message he wants delivered, and he's very, very good at it," recalls Ann Richards, whom Bush unseated in 1994 to become Texas Governor. In their debate, while Richards tried to make the case that Bush had been a serial failure in business--suggesting he would be out of his depth as Governor--he coolly accused her of trying to distract voters from the issues facing Texas, reciting over and over his mantra of welfare reform, juvenile justice and education. "He kicked her butt across Texas," says a senior Kerry adviser.

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