Is John Kerry a good enough actor to become president? As the campaign enters its final leg, with the first of the proposed televised debates approaching on Sept. 30 and a stark political choice facing the voters, the question may sound cynical, disrespectful, even uncivic. After all, an actor is an illusionist, whereas a political leader is supposed to be, as Kerry himself has put it, "the real deal."

Yet as anyone who follows modern politics knows, it takes a great deal of talent, practice, and discipline -- not to mention the combined efforts of numerous image consultants and communications experts -- for a politician to appear appealingly authentic, especially on television. As the playwright Arthur Miller wrote in a 2001 essay, "On Politics and the Art of Acting," "Political leaders everywhere have come to understand that to govern they must learn how to act."

The elaborately staged political conventions were the easy part, with everything scripted and well rehearsed. It only gets tougher from here. For the fall ad campaign, John Kerry's leading "image maker" is Robert Shrum, who has written speeches, produced ads, and developed strategies for a long list of Democratic politicians, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Bush's consultant of choice is Stuart Stevens, who produced the Bush campaign's television advertising in 2000. (Stevens also worked for Massachusetts governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, and wrote early episodes of the television series "Northern Exposure.")

In preparing for the debates, Kerry will be assisted by one of the top coaches in "media skills" in the nation -- Michael Sheehan, a graduate of the Yale Drama School and a former associate producer at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., who worked with Bill Clinton throughout his two terms. Sheehan, in fact, helped prepare Kerry and other speakers at the Democratic National Convention in July. In a campaign memoir, Stuart Stevens claimed Bush didn't use "coaches" in 2000 though he prepared extensively before debates with Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire as a stand-in for Gore.

Political leaders have sought to use acting techniques for a long time. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were coached in television performance skills (not entirely successfully) by movie actor and producer Robert Montgomery. Jimmy Carter once admitted he got advice from Robert Redford as he prepared for televised debates. Ronald Reagan, of course, made Carter look like an amateur.

But what if Kerry and Bush were to go all the way and consult a real acting coach? Are there techniques they could use to improve their abilities to inspire or connect with an audience? "No differently than with actors, the single most important characteristic a politician needs to display is relaxed sincerity," Arthur Miller wrote in his essay. In the heat of a campaign, relaxed sincerity seldom comes naturally. Can it be taught?

Susan Batson, based in New York, and Larry Moss, in Santa Monica, Calif., are two of the top acting coaches in the business. When interviewed by telephone in the weeks after the Democratic convention, the similarities between acting and campaigning were fresh on their minds. Moss has just completed a book about acting (due out in January from Bantam/Dell) in which he discusses his work with such Hollywood stars as Hilary Swank, Helen Hunt, and Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as his thoughts on roles played by political leaders on the public stage. Batson, who has worked with Tom Cruise, Chris Rock, Juliette Binoche, Nicole Kidman, and others, is also at work on an acting book that includes reflections on political performance.

For Batson, who grew up in a political household in Roxbury (her mother, Ruth M. Batson, served on the Democratic State Committee), no contemporary political leaders -- and few actual actors -- can approach the skills of Bill Clinton or Nelson Mandela. "They both have an incredible ease, and this ease allows us to be comfortable around them," Batson says. "Both of them have this ability to create an intimacy and this intimacy pulls us in and makes us feel their humanity. . . . I mean, every actor would beg to have what those two guys have."

The acting workshops of both Batson and Moss are well known for verging into something resembling group therapy sessions. For actors to develop emotional range, both coaches say, they must understand emotion, feel it in a real way, and go beyond faking it. It's fatal for the aspiring actor to be "blocked." Moss believes that applies to politicians, too. The best communicators can get ideas across to the audience "for a reason that's emotional to the person."

"You have to send the idea for a reason," says Moss. "It can't just be an idea, it has to be connected to the body and the sound of the man who's sending it." Kerry's flat, stentorian speaking style gives an audience little clue about his feelings. "He needs to go to a really good voice coach and find how to breathe and how to resonate so that we feel his body is in his voice," says Moss. "I don't even have a sense of his voice. One of the things about Bush is he's got this kind of strident, arrogant tinny quality, but there's power behind it because there's a lot of anger behind it and a lot of fear."

Batson also faults Kerry's lack of vocal range. "If you watch him," Batson says, "he has tremendous physical ease. . .. But that ease somehow doesn't come through the verbal life."

On television, control of body language, facial expression, and vocal intonation are often as important as the words a speaker uses. "TV audiences are uniquely able to read nonverbal communication," says Lynn Gartley, executive vice president of Talent Dynamics, a media training company in Dallas that works with TV journalists, business leaders, and politicians. "Everything is enlarged, everything means something."

Paul Ekman, a retired professor of psychology at University of California Medical School in San Francisco and a leading expert in nonverbal communication, suggests that while the face and voice are the two most reliable indicators of emotional states, it's harder for most people to produce the vocal sounds of emotion deliberately than to make (or mask) a facial expression.

Ekman's work also points to why acting skill, and successful coaching, is such an advantage for politicians. In "Emotions Revealed," a recent book summarizing his studies of the physiology of emotion, Ekman notes that most people, most of the time, have no control over when they become emotional. But public life requires the ability to use "managed expressions" and to summon emotion at the right times while hiding other emotional responses.

The political roadside, of course, is littered with candidates who showed the wrong kind of emotion at the wrong time -- Edmund Muskie in tears, Michael Dukakis' coolly rational answer to a debate question about how a sexual assault on his wife might affect his views of capital punishment, Al Gore's contemptuous sighs during debates with Bush, Howard Dean's infamous scream.

The public associates "acting" in politics with phoniness, and reacts against it. But perhaps what people are really objecting to is *bad acting -- unconvincing portrayals of a leader or emotional displays that seem inappropriate. If Americans tend to see the presidency as a heroic role, people still want someone who seems human as well, even flawed in ways they can understand. "We love actors because they remind us of our humanity," says Moss. "A political figure has to do this, also."

Batson believes one of the things that seemed "jammed" in the emotional life of Al Gore was his apparent need to be right about everything. Kerry risks alienating voters in the same way.

Professional acting coaches insist on the need to summon authentic emotion to express emotion. As Batson puts it, "The great actor digs down and really works to bring a reality to the work. The great politician has to connect in a real way to the people."

Most voters already have a firm idea about the character of the current president. This fall, many will be looking especially hard at John Kerry, searching for a "relaxed sincerity," perhaps, or some kind of authenticity. They will want to know if he seems genuine enough to be the president of the United States. He will need the skill of an actor -- which is to say, he'll need to seem as if he's not acting at all.