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Iraq through the eyes of the voter

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Watch Carlos Watson Fridays at 5 p.m. ET on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports.
Interactive: Presidential election battleground states
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
Carlos Watson

PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- This week, The Inside Edge looks at pressing election issues from U.S. policy in Iraq to college education reform.

There's also a fresh take on President Bush's oratory skills and a new election trend identified in the South. Lastly, some thoughts on who might share the ticket with John Kerry.

Weighing Iraq

Iraq tops the list of foreign policy issues voters will consider this year.

In analyzing Sen. John Kerry and President Bush on Iraq, Americans are likely to ask these six questions: Is the United States safer? Did the president tell the truth about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein? What has the war cost the United States? Should pursuing democracy in Iraq remain a top U.S. priority? How do other countries view the United States? Is U.S. action in Iraq moral?

Voting groups in swing states may not look at Iraq through the same prism. For example, voters in Western and Northeastern swing states such as Oregon and New Hampshire may focus more heavily on the truth-telling issue, perhaps hurting the president's re-election bid. In Midwestern swing states such as Ohio and Missouri, voters may focus more heavily on whether or not they feel safer, perhaps helping the president.

Look for the campaigns to poll these various points heavily and instead of offering a one-size-fits-all approach on Iraq, framing the debate differently in various parts of the country. He who wins the game of strategic agenda setting could win the election.

Bush, the great communicator

The president sure can give a fantastic political speech. Yes, I said fantastic. While often criticized as a poor orator, "misunderestimated" in his words, to watch Bush this past week in Florida was to witness a funny, effective communicator. And you can see that his team is figuring out how to clarify difficult points on complex issues such as Iraq, taxes and the Patriot Act.

Whether or not the president's speaking ability will make a difference with voters is open for debate. The better orator often does not win. Cases in point: William Jennings Bryan (1896), Teddy Roosevelt (1912), James Cox (1920), Thomas Dewey (1948), Barry Goldwater (1964) and Michael Dukakis (1988).

Nevertheless, given that the administration must make its case in as many as 15 to 18 swing states this year, it helps when your standard bearer comes across as informed, confident and yes, funny.

The new, New South

Over the last 30 years, Democrats have managed to win major races in the South often by combining upward of 90 percent of the African-American vote with 30 percent to 40 percent of the white vote. Significantly, the party's candidates have tended to be white men, as personified by former President Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, Sens. Bob Graham and John Edwards and others.

That formula has struggled in recent years (witness the losses of Max Cleland in Georgia and Erskine Bowles in North Carolina). With five retiring Southern Democratic senators this fall, many Democrats worry that the party could essentially be buried in the South this year.

But a new trend may bode well for the Democrats. In recent years, white women have formed winning biracial coalitions, often with a vibrant base of white female support and black female (and black male) support. Indeed, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Baineaux Blanco may be cutting a new path.

This fall, a few isolated victories could become a genuine trend if South Carolina Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum and former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor both win their party's nomination and their states' open Senate seats. Stay tuned -- gender may help Democrats create winning coalitions.

No college kid left behind?

Forget No Child Left Behind. If someone really wants to score some poll points, they should come up with a novel plan to increase college attendance and affordability.

Candidates could use this issue to appeal to younger voters, older workers in uncertain economic times and parents facing rising college costs.Women often rate education as one of their top issues, and some 55% of swing voters are women, according to one poll.

Given a populist, optimistic framing, the issue can come across as an inspiring commitment to a meritocratic country and a thoughtful response to a changing economy.

While it would seem to be a natural for Kerry, don't be surprised to see Bush smartly co-opt this issue (much as he did K-12 education reform during his campaigns for governor of Texas). Either way, expect this to be a surprisingly popular issue this year.

Who will it be?

It's been 16 years since an early, leading contender became the vice presidential nominee -- that was Lloyd Bentsen. That same year, then-Vice President George Bush threw a curve ball by choosing Dan Quayle, a little known senator from Indiana as his running mate.

In 1992, Clinton brushed off traditional ideas of regionally or ideologically balancing the ticket and instead chose a "clone" to run with him -- another young, moderate, white male elected official from a border state.

In 1996, with his campaign in need of a jolt, Bob Dole surprised observers and chose Jack Kemp, who disagreed with him on a variety of issues, including taxes and affirmative action. In 2000, then-Gov. George Bush put Dick Cheney in charge of his vice presidential process, only to end up with Cheney as the nominee himself.

So what surprises are in store for this year? Stay tuned for The Inside Edge's Top 10 likely picks. Next week, I'll take a look at a little-known, former Clinton official who could radically reshape the campaign if selected.

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