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What Kerry’s New Mantra Should Be: It’s the Debates, Stupid!

The current state of the 2004 presidential race does not favor Sen. John Kerry, no matter what utterly unconvincing spin Democratic strategists continue to offer. [IMGCAP(1)]

National polls show President Bush holding a narrow lead, and the two presidential campaigns are focusing their advertising on a little more than a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Maine and Wisconsin, all of which went for Al Gore in 2000. The race is close, but it isn’t even.

The Massachusetts Democrat will lose in November unless he changes the nature of the contest. And he will have an opportunity to do so during the three presidential debates, when he must accomplish two things.

First, Kerry must return the focus of the election to Bush. Throughout much of the spring and early summer, the race was about the president and his performance in office. That’s when Bush was in trouble. During August and at the GOP convention, Republicans were successful in making Kerry the issue, and particularly in raising questions about his consistency and instincts.

Polling has shown that much of the Democrat’s support comes from opposition to the president, rather than enthusiasm for Kerry. The Senator has a far better chance of winning if the election is a referendum on Bush’s job performance on the economy, Iraq and health care than if the election is seen as a choice between the two men.

Second, and of greatest importance, Kerry must alter the way voters now see the war in Iraq.

Republicans have successfully encouraged voters to regard Iraq as part of the larger war on terror. That linkage has made it more difficult for Kerry to focus on the problems in Iraq and to get much mileage out of his argument about the human and financial costs of the Iraqi effort.

If Iraq is one military front against a broader international terrorist effort to destroy the United States, Americans seem willing to divert considerable resources to Iraq.

Republicans have succeeded in defining Kerry’s vote to give the president authority to go to war in Iraq as a vote to attack Saddam Hussein. Kerry counters, reasonably but ineffectively, that while he voted to give the president authority, the president should not have used the authority as he did.

The problem with Kerry’s argument is that Howard Dean emerged as the main opponent to Bush’s Iraq policy, while the Massachusetts Senator tried — and continues to try — to have it both ways, as a tough guy who didn’t want to fight.

It isn’t surprising that Kerry is having a hard time selling that position, especially in the middle of a campaign that has been as polarizing as this one.

Indeed, the Republicans’ success linking the war in Iraq and the war against terror has made the Massachusetts Senator appear to be a flip-flopper on Iraq (a not altogether unreasonable conclusion given Kerry’s voting record and past statements).

Kerry has tried to extricate himself from his political problem by arguing that he would not have sacrificed American lives merely to topple Hussein. That argument, which is premised on the view that Bush’s attack on Iraq was a diversion, won’t work as long as Americans believe that the attack on Iraq constituted another front in the war against terrorism.

The debates give Kerry, and to a lesser extent his running mate Sen. John Edwards, another opportunity to separate Iraq and the war on terror in the minds of voters, and to convince them that his vote for the authority to fight and his opposition to the conduct of the war are separate and different things.

Kerry’s best opportunity will come during the first debate on Sept. 30, which will cover foreign policy. It should be heavily watched. Five days later, Vice President Cheney and Edwards debate, and foreign affairs is likely to be a major issue, if only because Cheney is so closely associated with the administration’s foreign policy and Edwards knows that he and Kerry must shake voters’ focus on the war on terror.

Domestic policy will be the focus of the final presidential debate on Oct. 13. Obviously, Kerry would be in better shape if he can convince voters that they should cast their votes on the basis of job losses, outsourcing, health care costs and other domestic issues. But it is unlikely that the debates will change the entire focus of the elections from international to domestic concerns.

Already within the past year, voters have twice changed the way they look at this election. Democrats did it shortly before the Iowa caucuses, and swing voters apparently did it again after the GOP national convention.

The debates — and the post-debate analysis, whether in newspapers, on TV news or in “Saturday Night Live” sketches — offer a major, and possibly final, opportunity for Kerry to change the electorate’s focus once again. He must do so if he has any hope of taking the oath of office on Jan. 20.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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