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Jewish World Review April 19, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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An election on a knife's edge |
In Iraq developments continue apace. Moqtada al-Sadr has suspended his revolt, and the Marines are conducting successful firefights in Fallujah. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has presented a plan for a post-June 30 government that senior officials in the Bush administration look on favorably. Meanwhile, in the race for president, opinion continues to be balanced on knife's edge. The latest Rasmussen tracking poll, with most of the interviews conducted after George W. Bush's April 13 press conference, shows Bush with a statistically insignificant lead, of 46 to 44 percent, over John Kerry.

But if voters are evenly divided between the candidates, their attitudes toward them are definitely not symmetrical. This was one conclusion I drew from observing a focus group conducted for the Annenberg Center by pollster Peter Hart. (Disclosure: I worked for Hart from 1974 to 1981; he moderated this focus group with scrupulous fairness.) The 11 focus group participants were from suburban Philadelphia and next-door Delaware and were selected as relatively undecided or movable voters, and most did seem torn between the two. They all live in a media market saturated with Bush and anti-Bush ads for the past month.

What's interesting is what they had in common. They thought that Bush was out of touch with ordinary people and didn't understand their problems, but they also found Bush likable; all but one said they would like to spend a weekend with the Bushes, who they thought would be friendly, casual, and active. They spoke movingly of Bush's strong leadership in the days and months after September 11. They gave him high marks on homeland security. But they thought he is too concerned about international issues and not enough about those in need at home.

About John Kerry they knew much less. They thought a weekend with the Kerrys would be full of outdoor activities but had little sense of his personality. Some of their impressions were negative. Several called him "arrogant" and said he waffles on issues; one mentioned that he voted for the Iraq war resolution and against the $87 billion funding--a charge the Bush ads have been making. But they seemed uninterested in another Bush charge, that he is too liberal. They did not mention abortion or gun control and mentioned the Supreme Court only once. And, like both candidates, they were not at all eager to talk about same-sex marriage.

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Pluses and minuses. Nor were they particularly eager to talk about the economy. They did not mention the 308,000 new jobs in March and they did talk about the difficulty people had finding jobs. But they also talked, mostly favorably, about the Bush tax cuts and did not seem to hold Bush accountable for sluggish job growth. As for the 9/11 commission, they called Richard Clarke disloyal, disappointing, and money-hungry, and thought he was selling his book like Pete Rose. In contrast, Condoleezza Rice was called elegant, outstanding, and brilliant.

Most supported the decision to take military action in Iraq, but most criticized Bush for saying that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and were troubled by the recent increase in fighting there. One woman who voted for Bush in 2000 said she feared things were spinning out of control, and another called for an exit strategy.

It was to such voters that Bush spoke at his press conference, held just minutes after the focus group. Americans have proved willing to support a wartime president, even when wartime casualties are a thousand times what they have been in Iraq, but only when they are convinced that America is on the road to a successful conclusion. Bush ignored the Oprahish questions of the press corps and spoke forcefully about our goals and the need to resolutely pursue them. This was the Bush one sees in discussions in the Oval Office or over the dinner table--discursive, speaking often in sentence fragments, coining new words, but utterly clear about what he means and showing the determination and sense of command he has not shown in previous press conferences or on Meet the Press earlier this year.

The focus group suggested that Bush has work to do and that he must strive to put disturbing events in Iraq into a larger perspective. But it also suggested that John Kerry has even more work to do to define himself clearly and that Bush has a large reservoir of goodwill and even admiration.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone