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Stakes high in third presidential debate

Jack Colwell | Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The presidential debate tonight could be decisive in determining whether there will again be a one-term President George W. Bush or instead four more years of this Bush presidency.

Sure, other events between now and Nov. 2 – a disaster or triumph in Iraq, a terrorist strike in this country, an international incident, a boost or jolt to the nation’s economy or something significant that we could not even guess – could prove to have more impact than the debate.

But the potential impact of this third of three debates looms large. The stakes are high in a race now so close.

The first debate is what put Sen. John Kerry back in the race. After the Republican National Convention, Bush enjoyed a bounce in the polls, including in the battleground states with the electoral votes for victory.

Kerry seemed unable even to defend his role as a decorated hero in Vietnam.

Bush was deemed likeable and decisive by the middle ground of voters who will decide the election in those key states. Kerry was not coming across as likeable or decisive. Even many voters who don’t really want Bush for a second term were concluding that Kerry perhaps was not the better choice.

Kerry won the first debate. Almost everyone agrees, even all four of the panelists on one of the Fox News programs that night. Kerry came across as thinkable, not unthinkable, as an alternative to Bush. The president, strangely, abandoned the style that made him so likeable in his acceptance speech and instead was peevish.

Thus, Kerry got the bounce in the polls after the debate, almost into a tie nationally and, most importantly, in the battlegrounds.

The second debate was a tie. Yes, partisans on each side claimed victory, each citing some poll or focus group. After dispensing with the spinning, it can be concluded that it was a tie.

A tie, however, is more of a plus for Kerry than for Bush. Expectations are higher for the President of the United States than for the challenger, especially one who had been portrayed rather effectively by the Bush campaign as likely to flip and certainly to flop. The longer Kerry holds his own with Bush, the more he will be viewed as able to hold the office.

Stakes are very high for the president in this debate. If he is perceived as a loser, his chances of re-election will diminish. Could he really lose two of the three debates and tie the other and still go on to win? Possibly.

Probably not, however, unless one of those monumental future events comes along to save him.

Stakes are just as high for Kerry. What if Kerry is perceived as the loser, maybe blundering into some reinforcement of a flip-flop image? Kerry’s momentum would be lost. The president could be back to the lead he had before the first debate.

A tie? Again, that would help Kerry, at least enough to send the race on toward Nov. 2 with the electorate as evenly split as in 2000.

The worst mistake President Bush could make tonight would be to follow in the stumbling footsteps of Al Gore toward the debacle Gore experienced in losing the debates and finally the presidency to Bush four years ago. A different Gore appeared each time. In the first debate, there was the sighing and insufferable Gore. Then came the overly passive Gore of the second debate. Third, too late, there was what might have been the real Gore.

The president certainly can’t go back to the scowling Bush of the first debate. But he better not stray much from the assertive Bush of the second debate. After all, that style at least brought a tie. If he becomes a third Bush, say, a bombastic Bush, he could suffer the same fate as Gore.

The worst mistake Kerry could make would be to go back to tortured rhetoric that plagued him earlier. Voters don’t want to hear him musing and sorting through alternatives. They want him to be clear about what alternatives he offers and why, simply stated.

Kerry also must be careful not to get too cute with a quip or too harsh with an allegation in a way that could come across to the undecided voters as improper in reference to the President of the United States.

For those wishing to evaluate the effect of the debate tonight, here is a reminder:

If you, like most Americans, already have picked a choice, don’t get carried away with enthusiasm for red-meat lines of your candidate. Those lines may help to solidify the base, but they also could turn off the very voters who must be swayed for victory.

Also, don’t miss it. This debate could be decisive.

Jack Colwell writes a political column for the South Bend Tribune, is host for “Michiana Week” and “Politically Speaking” on WNIT-TV and is an adjunct associate professor in the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.