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Inside Politics

Kerry scores third win, but race far from over


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CNN's Carlos Watson grades the candidates' debate performances.
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America Votes 2004

TEMPE, Arizona (CNN) -- In my opinion and according to a CNN post-debate snap poll, Sen. John Kerry won his third debate in a row Wednesday night and for the first time since this spring will probably become the unanimous front-runner in the race for the White House.

In contrast with the first two debates, however, Kerry did not start the night off well. Instead, President Bush scored points early on taxes and terrorism. The president also handled difficult questions well on job losses and same-sex marriage.

But while he started out a bit slowly, Kerry ultimately found his groove, offering meatier answers than Bush on a variety of issues, including Social Security, the minimum wage, health care and immigration. Both men also answered questions about their wives and faith in real and impressive ways.

While Kerry was ultimately better at offering thoughtful answers supported by facts, it is fair to say that neither candidate was truly outstanding. That's partly because neither Yale graduate did a great job of personalizing issues with colorful anecdotes and personal examples despite topics voters can relate to such as jobs and health care. Neither of them channeled Bill Clinton.

Both candidates also missed a significant opportunity to lay out a compelling job creation plan as well as a simple but comprehensive domestic vision for the next four years. Those critiques notwithstanding, the four debates (including the vice presidential one) have clearly transformed the campaign.

Debates hit hard

Having entered the debates down by 8 percentage points in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll and seemingly on his way out, Kerry not only re-energized his supporters but also used the debates to change perceptions of him as a person -- at least for the moment.

With his third consecutive debate win, Kerry will probably reach 50 percent in the likely voter poll for the first time since early July when he picked John Edwards as his running mate. The percentage of voters who view him as a strong and decisive leader will probably cross the critical 40 percent threshold, and the number of battleground states that are truly in play also will probably increase by one or two to 15 or 16.

While the debates have been good for Kerry, this race is a long way from being over. Four years ago, candidate George Bush was perceived to have won all three debates and exited the last one ahead by 5 to 11 percentage points in key national polls. But less than three weeks later, in the homestretch of the campaign, Al Gore caught up to Bush and ultimately surpassed him in popular support by about 500,000 votes.

Into the homestretch

So what could trump the impact of the debates -- which themselves trumped the conventions and swift boat controversy, which trumped bad news in Iraq, which trumped Bush advertising, which trumped Kerry's primary victories? What will matter in the final 19 days?

Certainly, an unplanned external event could affect voter decisions. Ralph Nader, absentee ballots and Election Day turnout efforts will also matter. In addition to those, watch these three as well:

  • Breakthrough television ads: Will one side offer a fresh new ad (perhaps a testimonial and not just an issue commercial) that breaks through the clutter and connects emotionally to ad-weary, persuadable voters in swing states? (Special Report: America Votes 2004, campaign ads)
  • Surrogate effectiveness: Bush's and Kerry's travel schedules will be more hectic than ever as they hit three to four major media markets a day instead of one to two. But an equally important question is who will have the more effective team of surrogates? Bush with his wife, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani and others? Or Kerry with Edwards, Bill Clinton, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and others?
  • An Oprah moment: While the opportunity to address 40 million to 60 million people at once has come and gone with the debates, there still may be an opportunity for a candidate to reach 10 million to 20 million people at once -- and for free. In particular, a major interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" or "60 Minutes" could capture such attention. In the days ahead, watch to see if either side -- or both -- agree to such a high-profile move to reach a large group of voters quickly and set off a broader media buzz.
  • Finally, it is worth stating again that this race will continue to be intense and closely fought, and ultimately feature the highest voter turnout rate since 1968, i.e., more than 56 percent of the voting age population. But I do not expect the final popular vote to be close, i.e., decided by 1 percent or less, as it was in 2000.

    Instead, given the large issues in this campaign, the big divides in philosophy and the memory of 2000, I expect the race will ultimately break for one candidate in the final days, with the winner leading by 3 to 6 percentage points. (I have previously suggested that the margin might be 5 to 8 points.)

    So stay tuned. This post-debate phase -- the homestretch, if you will -- has just begun.


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