Tags: For | Kerry | Now | Debate | Die

For Kerry, It Is Now Debate or Die

Tuesday, 28 September 2004 12:00 AM

I will predict, always a risky venture…that this first debate draws an audience of 60 million viewers. I also believe that President Bush thinks this too, since the topic the first night will be foreign policy which, incidentally, happens to be this president’s premier strength.

As late as the end of August, Kerry had not expected to be in a “must win” situation by the time the debates rolled around, but that is precisely what he faces. Trailing in nearly all nationwide polls, and losing in most battleground states, Kerry will have to change minds in a hurry, starting with a topic on which he cannot seem to make up his own mind, Iraq.

Besides attempting to square a myriad of positions on Iraq, Kerry will also have to explain his readopted defeatist position against the war, and his “dressed in black” outlook against the war on terrorism in general.

In this, Kerry faces a wartime president who is thoroughly seasoned in the art of the debate. And, dare I say, that Bush is even favored by a few pundits to win these debates? But campaigns are staffed for strategy after all, and neither side thinks entirely much of their man as opposed to the other when it comes to the debates.

Kerry spokesman and strategist Joe Lockhart told reporters that he would “challenge anyone to name a major debate that George Bush has been in where he hasn't been considered the winner.”

Earlier in the month, Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist, said in an interview that Kerry “is very formidable, and probably the best debater ever to run for president. I think he's better than Cicero," the ancient Roman orator. “I'm not joking.” Dowd added.

This, of course, is the time-honored ritual of lowering expectations regarding the candidate’s skill preceding the debates. It is a measure meant to give one’s candidate an edge going into the debates, and an excuse coming out. But, if per chance Bush or Kerry exceed the expectations, then it is always because “our man was better,” and never because the other guy was worse.

Kerry will need to be sharp, which he can be, but definitive, which he has not been.

Kerry needs solutions, which he has thus far lacked for most issues, and not attacks, with which he has depended on far too often.

Most of all, Kerry needs to give the voters a reason to vote for him, as opposed to a reason not to vote to reelect Bush. To date, Kerry is still the “anybody-but-Bush” candidate of the left. His recent tough words for Bush in campaign speeches would indicate that this is no facade, but Kerry coming to grips with just who he is.

But just as Kerry strives to please his leftist voting base with his often over-the-top rhetoric, he also attempts to energize the Independents and “security moms” by striking a pose on Iraq. It is a pose - one of victory and one of failure - that he has vacillated between since the Iowa Caucus.

Under the bright lights in Coral Gables, Florida, and standing before the crushing weight of millions listening to his every word, Kerry will have to come clean on Iraq. He will not have a second chance, and the “flip-flop” will fall one way or the other.

In regards to Iraq, I cannot see a way for Kerry to win the debate among his own Democratic base.

At the Democratic Convention, some 90 percent of the conventioneers were against the war in Iraq. Parts of Kerry’s constituency are also confused. Blacks do not necessarily see Iraq as a central issue, and wonder aloud what Kerry would do for them as president. Women, married or otherwise, are abandoning Kerry in a big way, as laid out by a recent New York Times/CBS poll. Married women favor Bush by a staggering 59 percent to 32 percent advantage. (www.nytimes.com/2004/09/22/politics/campaign/22women.html)

Even Independents are starting to line up for Bush. The latest Marist poll has Bush winning Independents by a slim 44 percent to 39 percent margin, a sign that voters are paying attention to what the candidates are saying. (www.maristpoll.marist.edu/usapolls/PZ040924.htm)

So is the election over for John Kerry? No, it isn’t. Most polls are showing that anywhere from 18 percent to 29 percent of voters say that these debates would matter in choosing the next president. That in itself is a large enough number to cause each candidate to choose his answers carefully. It is here that John Kerry will pin his presidential hopes.

Debates can take on a gladiatorial aspect at times - a modern-day blood sport for a more civilized age. Given Kerry’s recent rhetorical bloodletting upon the stump against Bush, he will work with what weapons he has been given by the Clinton cadre that now infuses his thoughts.

What I do suspect is that John Kerry will let it all out on that Florida stage on September 30, sparing nothing for George W. Bush. It is a strategy fraught with risk for Kerry. Put in the unenviable position of staking one's presidential hopes within the parameters of a 90 minute debate, it is now conquer or be conquered for Kerry in the arena of public opinion.


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I will predict, always a risky venture…that this first debate draws an audience of 60 million viewers.I also believe that President Bush thinks this too, since the topic the first night will be foreign policy which, incidentally, happens to be this president's premier...
Tuesday, 28 September 2004 12:00 AM
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