Viewing the debates in their totality, Sen. John Kerry has to be exceedingly grateful that he was able to go toe to toe against the president of the United States for a total of 270 minutes, on a level playing field, on national television.
Absent those debates, President Bush may by now have been clearly on his way to reelection Nov. 2. Before the first matchup, he was consistently beating the Massachusetts Democrat in polls. Now the American public has had ample opportunity to view both men, unfiltered, addressing tough issues. The result is a race too close to call, both in nationwide opinion and in state-by-state Electoral College analyses, where no neutral polls show either man with a sure lock on the states required to gather the 270 votes needed.
Anything could happen. Bush could win the popular vote and lose in the Electoral College. So could Kerry. Or either man could win comfortably, in a collective shift of opinion among the "persuadable" voters not firmly wedded to a candidate.
What, ultimately, will decide this race? The Monitor interviewed a range of analysts, some partisan, some independent, for views on what the sprint to the finish line might look like.
"The only thing that will change momentum at this point would be an event, a continued rise in oil prices, the stock [market] falling under 10,000, something bad or good in Iraq, or ... a terrorist attack, which probably in the short run would work to the president's advantage," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
The public, particularly in battleground states, can expect to see ever more frequent ads between now and Election Day, and TV coverage of Bush and Kerry speaking at events (often never leaving the airport tarmac) in a rotating handful of key states. Expect also daily polling and focus-group results that purport to show momentum veering one way or the other. The goal is create a bandwagon effect.
Kerry should try to become more personable, says Professor Wayne, reflecting the widespread view that American voters' feelings about candidates - their likability and values - can be even more important than their stands on issues.
Bush should acknowledge that some things have not gone according to plan, but that over the long haul, he sees how things can work out, says Wayne.
"That was part of his father's problem; during the recession, he refused to use the 'r' word," he says, referring to the first President Bush, who failed in his reelection bid. "People want a president who recognizes the problems and [can] be more candid."
Republican pollster Whit Ayres, based in suburban Washington, says Kerry needs to "try yet one more time to come up with a coherent position on Iraq." Bush, he says, should continue to drive home his leadership advantage. "Fundamentally, that is what the election will boil down to," he says.
This year, a referendum on Kerry
To Democratic activists, the risk for Bush in his "leadership advantage," as a sitting president, is that he comes across as stubborn and unable to adjust policies when they're not working.
"There is a small swing electorate he needs to reassure that he's not a right-wing ideologue," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. But, he adds, he believes Bush's strengths and weaknesses are already fully on display, and that there's not much the president can do to alter the electorate's judgment.
Indeed, many analysts have commented on the unusual nature of this election, as a referendum on the challenger. Usually, when a president is running for reelection, the vote is a referendum on the incumbent. In this case, polls have consistently shown the president's job approval at about 50 percent, or just below.
So the real question in this election is whether enough of the public is willing to take a leap toward a challenger with little executive experience.
For Kerry to reassure enough "persuadables" to win, says Mr. Marshall, he needs to "convince people that he will [govern in a] Clintonian, new Democrat mold, not in a Massachusetts liberal one. Bush was fairly crude and repetitive about it. It is so obviously the new thrust of the Bush Republican attack."
Kerry also needs to drive home that his healthcare plan is not a government takeover of the American healthcare system, as Bush claimed it was in the Wednesday debate, Marshall says. "On the contrary, it is to help Americans who don't have insurance be able to buy private health insurance," he says.
The initial polling on the final debate gave Kerry the edge. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of registered voters, 52 percent thought Kerry won, with Bush at 39 percent. An ABC News poll of registered voters gave Kerry 42 percent, versus 41 percent for Bush. And a CBS poll of uncommitted voters showed 39 percent thought Kerry won, versus 25 percent for Bush.
Republican analyst Frank Luntz ran a focus group of "swing voters" in Tempe, Ariz., the location of the final debate, in which participants used computerized dials to register their reactions to Kerry and Bush's statements. Of the 23 participants, 13 thought Kerry had won; none thought Bush had won; and 10 said it was a draw.
But Mr. Luntz found that if the 23 participants had been forced to vote for president right after the debate, 16 would have voted for Bush, five would have chosen Kerry, one would have voted for the Libertarian candidate, and one had no comment. Participants, he said, clearly saw Kerry as the better debater, but found him hard to trust.
"Kerry still has a credibility gap that he must address," says Luntz. He "still has to convince voters that what he says is what he means and what he means is what he says." Bush's task, he says, is to "hold Kerry accountable but at the same time present his own plan for the future ... for Iraq and the economy."
He also predicts that nothing said in the Wednesday debate will live beyond the weekend. "Politics moves so quickly that what is said on Wednesday is already forgotten on Friday," he says.