Best out of three
After Round 2, a tight race tightens still further, and now it's either man's to lose
ST. LOUIS--Matthew Dowd, George Bush's chief strategist, was so pleased with his boss's debate performance last week that he strode into the press area and gave a colleague a high five that rang through the cavernous room like a rifle shot. There was only one problem: The debate was only 61 minutes old and still had more than 30 minutes to go. And Dowd had to stop watching his boss's performance in order to go into the press center to celebrate it. But the spin was that important this time around. Bush not only lost the first debate in Coral Gables but, more disastrously, lost the press analysis afterward. This time, praising Bush's performance was more important than actually witnessing his performance. Which is why chief Bush guru Karl Rove also rushed into the press room mid-debate, followed by a slew of Democrats in one of the maddest spin-room dashes in debate history.
Bush has sometimes been criticized for not being able to admit to mistakes, and he was asked by an audience member to name some Friday night. He said he had made some "tactical" decisions that "historians will look back and say he shouldn't of done that," but he said that on the big decisions--invading Afghanistan and Iraq--"I'll stand by those decisions because I think they're right." Kerry replied: "I believe the president made a huge mistake, a catastrophic mistake, not to live up to his own standard, which was build a true global coalition, give the inspectors time to finish their job and go through the U.N. process to its end, and go to war as a last resort."
The fact that Bush probably did himself some good, and may have stalled a slide in the polls, set up the final debate this week at Arizona State University in Tempe. That encounter is limited to domestic and economic issues.
"Maginot Line." The battle between the two campaigns actually broke out before the debate began when the debate organizers placed red tape on the red carpeting of the debate stage designating lines the two candidates were not supposed to cross as they wandered about in the town-hall setting. The tape--jokingly designated as the "Maginot Line" by the Kerry campaign--did manage to keep the two men from throttling each other.
But the real Kerry strategy is not to stay close to Bush physically but to stay close in the polls--close enough so that on Election Day Democrats can "kick a field goal" with their get-out-the-vote effort and win. The Republicans, on the other hand, have their own get-out-the-vote effort, and both parties have been doing unprecedented amounts of door-knocking and voter outreach.
While most pollsters say there are very few undecided voters left in this election, Democrats dispute that. One top Kerry adviser told U.S. News that the current undecided vote was as high as 15 to 20 percent of the electorate. Since challengers traditionally get the majority of the undecided vote, this would obviously be good news for Kerry. Republicans dismiss the 15 to 20 percent figure as wishful thinking.
The Bush policy on Iraq, which was the subject of many questions at the second debate, has taken three body blows in the past week or so: A report by the top U.S. inspector in Iraq that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction at the time the United States invaded; a speech by Paul Bremer, the former top U.S. official in Iraq, asserting that the United States had not sent enough troops to Iraq; and a statement by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that he had no firm evidence that there was a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.
The continuing bad news from Iraq, rising oil prices, bad job numbers, and a generally sluggish economy have caused Bush's lead in the polls following his convention to evaporate. Going into the debate, Dowd put the Bush lead at 2 percentage points. Like many pollsters, Dowd believes the national polls are closely mirroring the polling in the battleground states where the race, at least theoretically, will be determined.
This story appears in the October 18, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.