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The Race Right Now | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Race Right Now

On the eve of the final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, everything has changed -- again. And it could all change once more tonight. But here is where the race stands right now:

READING THE POLLS: The race for the presidency is as close as it has been at any time during this long campaign. Neither Bush nor Kerry has opened a consequential lead in recent days. No matter what survey you look at -- those with Bush in the lead or those with Kerry out front -- the two men are within the margin of error. That's a notable improvement for Kerry, who was clearly behind in a number of national surveys before the first presidential debate. Kerry's trajectory has been an upward one since that initial face-off with Bush. All the polling suggests that the Democrat benefitted not only from his own performance in the first debate but also from public reaction to the vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate.

Beneath the top line numbers that show Kerry and Bush essentially tied, there are powerful trends at work. They tend generally to favor the Democrat, although he still faces serious challenges heading toward November 2. Kerry's personal and issue-by-issue approval ratings have risen dramatically since the first debate. According to the CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released 10/12, Americans surveyed now say Kerry would do a better job than Bush on virtually every major domestic issue: protecting the environment (29 point advantage), improving access to health care (19 point advantage), preserving Medicare (15 point advantage), eliminating deficits (13 point advantage), preserving Social Security (9 point advantage), aiding education (7 point advantage), shoring up the economy (4 point advantage), maintaining a woman's right to choose (4 point advantage) and promoting stem cell research (20 point advantage). Only on the question of taxes did Bush have an advantage, with those surveyed favoring the president by a 51-44 margin.

Where Bush maintains an advantage is on a pair of critical foreign policy issues: handling the mess in Iraq and pursuing the war on terrorism. On Iraq, Bush has a 51-44 advantage. On the war on terror, the Republican outpaces the Democrat by a whopping 56-39. While it is clear that Bush benefits most from the meticulously-nurtured impression that he would be a stronger defender of the US than Kerry, even this advantage is vulnerable. Forty-six percent of Americans now say it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq. And the percentage of Americans who believe it was worth going to war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the invasion of that country in March 2003. Only 44 percent of Americans now believe the war was worth doing. That's down from 59 percent at the start of the year, and from 49 percent just one month ago.

Notably, Bush's overall job approval rating is at the lowest level so far this year. Where 60 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job in January, and 52 percent gave the president their O.K. as recently as September 5, only 47 percent now approve.

Going into Wednesday night's final presidential debate, Kerry has an format advantage. The focus is supposed to be on domestic issues, his greatest area of strength. But watch for Bush to try and stall the Democrat's momentum by turning the discussion toward national security issues. For Kerry, the challenge is to use his last unfiltered appearance before the American people to focus on his areas of strength while addressing his vulnerabilities on those terrorism-security-safety issues. The Democrat needs to make linkages that are difficult, but certainly not impossible. It is a good bet that Kerry will focus on flaws in Bush's approach to homeland security with an emphasis on how a proper level of investment in programs and infrastructure will make the United States safer and might reasonably be expected to expand access to health care and create some new jobs. It is an even better bet that Bush will avoid that kind of nuance. The phrase "tax-and-spend liberal" -- or some variation on that line -- will be Bush's preferred response to Kerry's thrusts -- setting the theme for the post-debate period of the campaign.

BATTLEGROUND STATES: Before the first debate, Kerry was in serious trouble in a number of the competitive "battleground" states where the election is likely to be decided. For the most part, the improvement in the Democratic candidate's fortunes has been reflected at the state level. In New Hampshire, which went for Bush in 2000, Kerry now leads by a 49-42 margin, according to a new Manchester Union-Leader/Franklin Pierce College Poll. In New Jersey, which went solidly for Gore in 2000 but seemed close for a time this year, two new polls have Kerry with a decent if not comfortable lead -- 47-40 for the Democrat in the Newark Star-Ledger/Rutgers University survey; 49-41 for the Democrat in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University survey. In Wisconsin, a state Gore narrowly won in 2000, Kerry had trailed by as much as 10 points in some September polls; he is now back within the margin of error -- a new CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll has it: Bush 49, Kerry 46. In Missouri, where Kerry had fallen well behind, he is now just two points away from Bush, according to a new KSDK-TV/Survey USA poll. On the other hand, North Carolina, which had seemed to be in play, now appears to be solidly in Bush's column. Florida also seems to be moving slowly into Bush's column. That drift is offset by Ohio, a Bush state in 2000 where polls show Kerry well ahead of where Gore was four years ago. Registration patterns in Ohio favor the Democrats but GOP numbers are also up, meaning that this state will be ground zero for Get-Out-the-Vote efforts by both parties.

Most interesting new development: Colorado, which went big for Bush in 2000, appears to have become a battleground state. The CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 each. Other recent polls put Bush ahead, but with Kerry competitive. Watch for both campaigns to shift resources and campaign schedules Colorado's way.

NEWSPAPER ENDORSEMENTS: The Portland Oregonian newspaper, which in 2000 gave a strong endorsement to George W. Bush, on Sunday endorsed John Kerry. "When George W. Bush took office in a deeply divided nation, he promised to reach out to unite the country. If anything, he has helped make the rifts deeper. That may be his real failure as president," the editors of the Oregonian explained. "John Kerry can do better." The Oregonian followed the lead of another large west-coast paper, the Seattle Times, which backed Bush in 2000 but this year came out strong for Kerry, declaring, "The election of Kerry would sweep away neoconservative war intellectuals who drive policy at the White House and Pentagon." So far, according to Editor & Publisher, Kerry has been endorsed by newspapers with a combined circulation of 2,534,377 to newspapers with a combined circulation of 637,187 for Bush. No major newspaper that backed Gore in 2000 has endorsed Bush this year.

SENATE RACES: The race for control of the Senate, while largely neglected by national media, remains competitive.

Democrats could to pick up as many as four US Senate seats that are currently held by Republicans: Polls have Democratic candidates ahead in Illinois, Alaska, Oklahoma and Alaska. Illinois appears to be a certain pick-up state, with Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican Alan Keyes by 30 to 40 points in the polls. The rest of the states are much closer but clearly competitive. Perhaps the most amazing upturn in Democratic fortunes has been in Oklahoma, where the party's nominee, US Rep. Brad Carson, has received a big hand from his Republican foe, former US Rep. Tom Coburn. The Republican seems to go from crisis to crisis. Coburn has been caught up in scandals regarding sterilizations he performed as a physician and his frequently bizarre statements. Most recently he announced that "lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom." Newspaper interviews with school superintendents found not a one who could confirm Colburn's report.

Democrats light up when they start talking about Oklahoma. But they get nervous when the talk turns to Senate contests in the south. Democrats are likely to lose at least two of the five southern seats that are being vacated by members of their party. In Georgia, where Democrat-in-name-only Zell Miller is exiting, party nominee Denise Majette trails far behind Republican Johnny Isakson in all polls. In South Carolina, where Democrat Fritz Hollings is stepping down, the party's nominee to replace him, Inez Tenenbaum, has run a tepid campaign that has left her well behind Republican Jim DeMint. But in three other seats where Democratic seats are open -- Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina -- Democratic nominees are running even or ahead.

If Democrats win the four currently Republican-held seats where they are running well, and if they hold at least three of the five southern seats, the next Senate could end up split between a 51-member Democratic caucus (50 party members and one independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with them, and a 49-member Republican caucus.)

Of course, that is the best scenario for Democrats. For a variety of reasons-- including a late rise in the fortunes of Florida Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez and the continued vulnerability of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is running no better than even in most South Dakota polls – the better bet is for a 50-50 split. Of course, if Kerry wins the presidency, John Edwards will be breaking the ties.

Even that scenario could fall apart of Bush turns out to have coattails in western and southern states where he will win by wide margins. But few observers expected the Senate to be in play at this point, and it is. And there may even be a sleeper race where another Democrat could come into contention.

In Kentucky, Dr. Dan Mongiardo, a state senator who is the Democratic nominee, has according to several polls narrowed the gap in the race with Republican US Sen. Jim Bunning. The contest wasn't supposed to be close. But Bunning has engaged in such bizarre behavior that he has sparked discussion about whether he might be suffering from dementia. Bunning has compared Mongiardo, a respected physician, to the sons of Saddam Hussein. During a visit to Paducah, Bunning requested additional police protection because he said he feared he might be attacked by al-Qaeda while visiting a Quilters' Museum. Then, this week, Bunning refused to appear in person for a long-scheduled debate, instead demanding that he be allowed to take part via satellite from Washington. Bunning aides were so concerned about the impression their boss might make in the debate that they demanded that Mongiardo's campaign agree not to use images of the Republican senator from it. At the same time, Bunning has been airing commercials that falsely suggest that a luxurious home and private jet featured in the ad belong to Mongiardo. The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial page refers to the Bunning ad as "despicable," while the Lexington Herald-Leader described the Bunning ad as so "offensive and unfair" that a voter watching them "might well conclude that politics is an amoral wasteland into which only a masochist would venture."

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has ramped up support for Mongiardo. Smart move; they need to open at least one new front between now and November 2.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com

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