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Stakes are high

Some pundits already are writing off this year's presidential debates as a lame contest between Wooden Guy and Tongue-tied Guy. That view doesn't do justice to the debating skills of President Bush and John Kerry. More important, it doesn't do justice to the debates themselves, which have a chance to be especially important this election year, even under the ridiculously restrictive rules set for the debates.

The debates should be more important this year because the issues are more important. Four years ago, when voters did not foresee the war in Iraq or the horror of the 9/11 attacks, the three Bush-Gore debates rambled across narrow differences on smaller issues. This year, voters are deeply divided over the war and broader issues of national security.

President Bush and his Democratic challenger also have sharp disagreements on social and economic policy. Four years ago, Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative" and purposely minimized his philosophical differences with Al Gore. This year, he can't paper over the hard-edged stances on tax policy, civil liberties, the environment and other issues that have defined his domestic agenda.

The debates also take on special importance this year because the campaign otherwise has been so lacking in substance. Bush and Kerry both have gone to great lengths to avoid serious questioning from political reporters and the public. Bush prefers sympathetic questions from carefully screened supporters. Kerry prefers the softballs of Regis Philbin or David Letterman. Both campaigns' attack ads have been even more superficial and distorted than usual, and the press has allowed itself to be diverted into covering fatuous arguments over swift boats and National Guard records.

For Kerry, the debates are especially important because, unlike the president, he still hasn't defined himself in the public's mind. Polls show that most voters still don't know what, if anything, Kerry stands for. The Democratic National Convention was a missed opportunity that focused on Kerry's decades-old war exploits instead of his 20-year Senate record or his plans for the next four years. Until last week, Kerry had not even managed to stake out a clear position on Iraq.

The three debates _ and the Dick Cheney-John Edwards debate, which may outshine the main events _ should rise above the earlier campaign noise and allow the candidates to talk in detail about Iraq, terrorism, jobs, health care and other issues of importance to every American. Bush and Kerry both have gotten where they are by defeating clever and articulate opponents who were supposed to be able to debate rings around them. But presidential debates are too important to be judged on style points. Beginning Thursday night, the candidates will have their best opportunities to explain how they would lead the nation through the next four years of peril and opportunity. Responsible citizens will pay close attention.