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Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2004 / 27 Tishrei 5765

Roger Simon

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Round Two | George W. Bush was petulant in his first debate and pugnacious in his second. Maybe for his third he ought to try presidential.

Though he did better in his second debate against John Kerry in St. Louis than he did in his first debate at Coral Gables (he could hardly have done worse), I get the feeling these debates are not helping Bush and are helping Kerry.

Bush is paying the price for avoiding many press conferences and for appearing only in front of adoring groups. He is not yet quick enough on his feet and, on occasion, has not been up to the questioning in the debates.

Kerry, on the other hand, no great master on the stump, has been helped enormously by one aspect of the debate format: He must keep his longest answers to two minutes. And, believe me, Kerry is better at two minutes than he is at 40 minutes.

No matter. The Bush campaign team decided early that they would not make the mistake they made after the first debate, when they were very subdued (i.e. honest) over Bush's poor performance.

Matthew Dowd, George Bush's chief strategist, was so pleased with his boss's debate performance in St. Louis at the second debate 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 had not only lost the first debate in Coral Gables against John Kerry but, more disastrously, Bush lost the press analysis afterwards. So the Bush campaign team decided that for the second debate praising Bush's importance was more important than actually witnessing Bush's performance.

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Which is why chief Bush guru Karl Rove rushed into the press room while the debate was still going on and a slew of Democrats soon followed in one of the maddest dashes in debate history.

On stage, the two candidates were going at it toe-to-toe and sometimes almost cheek to jowl with neither giving an inch. Not much new ground was covered, but at least each was forceful defending his familiar turf.

Kerry continued to say that Bush promises "you more of the same for the next four years. He rushed to war without a plan to win the peace." In response, Bush said Kerry's position on the Iraq war was "na´ve and dangerous."

Bush did make some verbal gaffest, referring to the Internet as "the internets" and referring to Kerry as "Senator Kennedy." But even some Democrats were forced to admit Bush had improved his debate skills. "He was not a disaster like he was last time." David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist said.

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 they 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.

In 2000, internal Republican polling showed Bush doing four percentage points better than he actually did. The reasons, his strategists say, was an insufficient effort to get Republicans to the polls, a mistake they vow not to repeat. Democrats, on the other hand, say the higher the turn-out, the greater Kerry's chances, and vow a massive effort in the final days.

While most pollsters say there are very few undecided voters left in this election, Democrats dispute that. One top Kerry adviser told me that the current undecided vote was as high as 15-20 percent of the electorate. Since challengers traditionally get the majority of the undecided vote, this would obviously be good news for Kerry. Republicans dismiss 15-20 percent figure as wishful thinking on the part of the Kerry campaign.

The Bush policy on Iraq, which was the subject of many questions at the second debate, has taken three body blows in the last 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 Hussein and Al Qaeda.

This 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.

Judging by the polls, the general feel of the campaign, and the general frenzy demonstrated by both sides, the race is probably tied.

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