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Inside Politics

One step along the long campaign trail

Analysts warn against reading too much into convention

By Greg Botelho

CNN's Carlos Watson grades Sen. John Kerry and the DNC.

CNN's Judy Woodruff on John Kerry's journey to the nomination.

CNN's Bill Schneider on Kerry's challenge: defining his image.
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(CNN) -- Four days spent hammering home a message of strength, courage and values culminated in arguably the highlight of Sen. John Kerry's political career -- but it was just one of many important moments in the 2004 presidential campaign, analysts say.

Kerry's speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination generally received high marks and dominated front pages nationwide Friday morning. But while many experts -- independent and partisan -- expected the convention would lift Kerry's poll standing, few believe it will determine the election's outcome.

"Without question, the Democrats did a superb job getting their message across," says Ken Warren, an independent pollster and St. Louis University professor. "But I also think that the Republicans will do a superb job countering."

In orchestrated fashion, Democratic leaders gave speech after speech echoing a handful of common themes -- including the need to be tough on terrorism, boost America's credibility abroad and make health care more affordable.

But the persistent message and unity among Democrats surprised few experts, well aware that today's political conventions tend to follow a tight script.

"The Democratic convention on the whole was very well packaged to sell a product," says Warren. "But in this day and age -- with all of the pollsters, researchers and media professionals -- they know how to present a candidate."

Conventions take on the most significance when things don't go according to plan, says political analyst Larry Sabato.

Anti-war riots in Chicago, for instance, hurt the Democrats in 1968, while a prolonged platform debate four years later delayed nominee George McGovern's acceptance speech until after most people had gone to bed. Internal wrangling, meanwhile, plagued Republican conventions in 1976 and 1992.

"Those are the conventions that matter, because they make it very difficult for that party's ticket," says Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There is no surprise that Kerry did well, because nominees have a 99.9 percent chance of doing well at their convention."

A post-convention poll jump has also become the norm, based on historical precedent.

Warren, citing the relatively low number of undecided voters and the fact that only a small percentage of Americans actually watch the conventions, says Kerry can expect a 4 percent to 6 percent bounce in the coming weeks.

CNN political analyst Carlos Watson, however, expects the new Democratic presidential nominee to get a bigger boost -- in the high single digits.

"People can change their mind, even among the 80 percent who have committed to one side or another" according to polls, says Watson, asserting that the Democrats had a "very, very successful convention."

But Watson, pointing out that a successful Democratic convention will only carry the Kerry-Edwards ticket so far, says the bounce could fade entirely in the next few weeks.

"There will be numerous swings in the polls between now and the November election," he says. "There's still a lot of work to be done."

After weeks of relative silence, the Republicans now will step up to respond to Kerry and his party's performance before convening in New York next month -- an affair that promises to be as tightly controlled and on message as its Democratic counterpart, experts say.

The one vice presidential and three presidential debates -- to be held between September 30 and October 13 -- could also factor in the final election outcome.

And, good or bad, the news -- particularly on Iraq, the economy or the war on terrorism -- may also help determine who will win what is widely forecast as a tight election.

"This is a big election, about big things -- war and peace, the economy and all the rest," says Sabato. "Real events over the next few months will have an impact."

At the least, the Democrats can take heart that their convention has offered a cogent comeback to many criticisms of Kerry -- that he won't be tough on terror, he is unpatriotic in not fully backing the Iraq war, and that people don't know who he is or what he stands for, Warren says.

"Not only did the Democrats accomplish what they wanted to, they exceeded expectations," he says.

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