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‘Wild Cards’ Could Make the Difference in White House Race

What do the Rev. James Dobson, George Soros, Fallujah, Doyle McManus, the CIA, John Zogby, Osama bin Laden, Justice Antonin Scalia and I have in common? [IMGCAP(1)]

We all represent wild cards in the presidential race — specifically, turnout efforts among Republican and Democratic voters, events in Iraq, late-breaking campaign developments, polling confusion, possible terrorism in the United States, post-election challenges in the courts and undecided voters. That last category still includes me.

At the moment, President Bush seems to be leading Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) nationally by a margin of about 3 points.

The average of the nine latest three-way national polls shows Bush with 48.7 percent of the vote, Kerry with 45.3 percent and Ralph Nader with 1.4 percent.

Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, told me he thinks his side is up by about 4. Other Bush officials say that in the 15 states they are tracking most closely, their lead is a little less.

Tad Devine, a top Kerry strategist, told me he believes the CBS/New York Times finding that the race is even, but other sources say they’ve heard from high and inside the Kerry campaign that Bush is deemed up by 3.5 points.

Like CBS, the NBC/Wall Street Journal and Pew Research Center polls out Wednesday and the latest from pollster John Zogby all show the race tied. Last Friday, Zogby’s daily track showed Bush up by 4 points.

I cite Zogby as a wild card, but only symbolically. No one knows for sure who’s right: Gallup’s poll on Monday showing Bush up by 8 points? Fox News’ Tuesday poll showing him up by 7 points? Or the polls showing a tie?

It’s significant that, except for the Democracy Corps poll, run by Democrats, no one has Kerry up. They have him leading by 3 points.

But any or all of the polls could be off —because they can’t reach people with only cellphones, because they can’t anticipate real-world turnout and because there are more undecideds than they are counting.

Conventional wisdom has it that there are very few undecideds left in this polarized electorate, and that the ones remaining are out-of-touch voters who probably won’t show up at the polls.

But I know lots of in-touch people (like myself) who prefer Kerry on social and domestic policy and Bush on foreign policy (or the reverse) and can’t make up their minds who to vote for (or against).

Gallup estimates the undecided vote at only 4 percent of the electorate. Fox News puts it at 9 percent and CBS at 7 percent. But suppose it’s more — say 12 percent.

Historically speaking, the more undecideds there are, the better it should be for Kerry, because undecideds usually break two-to-one or better for the challenger over an incumbent.

The biggest wild card of all probably is turnout. Billionaire George Soros is spending vast sums through various 527 groups to register anti-Bush voters and get them to the polls, while James Dobson is expending his energies — “nonstop,” he told me — to turn out evangelical Christians for Bush.

Dobson said he was motivated by a nightmare to endorse a presidential candidate for the first time this year. “I woke up with sweaty palms,” he said. “I dreamt that John Kerry was elected and that [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] decided she’d never be president, so she agreed to accept Kerry’s nomination and become Chief Justice of the United States. That was a nightmare!”

So Dobson is out helping White House political guru Karl Rove bring to the polls the 5 million or so evangelicals who, they believe, didn’t turn up in 2000 — partly, at least, because of last-minute revelations that Bush once was arrested for drunk driving.

Last-minute developments like that are another wild card. In that category, I put possible leaks from anti-Bush bureaucrats in the CIA, Pentagon or State Department of an embarrassing report indicating that Bush neglected terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001, or refused to accept advice on the Iraq war’s aftermath.

On the other side, as I’ve written before, I’m told there’s a Bush ad coming showing Kerry telling the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in September 2003 that it would be “reckless” and “irresponsible” for any Senator to vote against $87 billion for the troops in Iraq — which Kerry did, of course, the next month.

Other wild cards include the success or failure of the much-anticipated operation to wipe out enemy forces in Fallujah, which will test the combat-readiness and loyalty of Iraqi forces, and the possibility of a massive terrorist attack.

The models for this would be the 1983 suicide bombing that killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon and the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam, both of which undermined U.S. policy.

Terrorists apparently loyal to al Qaeda supporter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi already have demonstrated that they can penetrate Baghdad’s Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi government headquarters are located.

A successful large-scale attack presumably would work to Kerry’s advantage, pointing up flaws in Bush’s Iraq execution — although some Bush supporters think it would backfire and remind Americans of the stakes they face in the war on terrorism.

The latter result would almost certainly come to pass if Osama bin Laden staged another terrorist attack in the United States before the election — even one aimed at targets Kerry has warned about, such as ports or the cargo holds of planes. Americans wouldn’t want bin Laden to affect the outcome of our elections as he did Spain’s.

But lawyers and judges might have a similarly devastating impact if they convert another close election into a divisive post-election Donnybrook.

If Scalia and the other conservatives on the Supreme Court once again anoint Bush as president in a contested election — especially if he again lost the popular vote — it would certainly inhibit Bush’s ability to govern (even though it didn’t after 2000).

What we all should hope for is that somebody wins the presidency decisively so that the outcome is not in doubt. This year, in fact, it may matter more how the winner wins than who wins.

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