Amid Debates, the Race Tightens

The first debate between President Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, went into the books as a victory for the challenger, both on its merits and for its effect on the polls. This will alter the playing field for the remaining debates, including that between the running mates, but it's far less clear what effect it will have on the election itself.

Not every poll showed a substantial debate gain for Kerry, but most showed at least some. The most striking movement came in the Gallup Poll conducted for CNN and USA Today, a weekly sounding that has functioned as the Dow Jones of the political market. In September, Gallup had shown the president leading by a dozen points. But after the two men debated foreign policy in Coral Gables, Fla., the first fresh Gallup came out Sunday night with the race dead even.

A new CBS News/New York Times poll also pegged the race as a tie. And Newsweek got a lot of attention with almost the same set of results, but showing Kerry actually up by three points.

But not everyone fell into line. John Zogby, often a maverick in relation to his fellow pollsters, showed Bush still ahead by a single point. ABC News and The Washington Post had Bush ahead by six and the Pew Research Center, which had not fully joined the big move to Bush in September, found the president still out front by five after the first debate.

These polls, and the general feeling that the president had stumbled in the first debate, will transform expectations and perceptions for the second and third presidential meetings on Oct. 8 and 13. The president will almost surely appear more disciplined in these rematches. He will display a more engaged and positive attitude in general and control his facial expressions in reaction to Kerry.

The lowering of expectations for the president will make his improvement all the more apparent. And so the sense of "seeming presidential" will return, and with it some (if not all) of the incumbent's advantage.

The first debate and resulting polls have also heightened interest in the vice-presidential debate. This is the traditional undercard event in which the No. 2 candidates face off and try to look, well, vice presidential. Hardly anyone thinks these debates drive voters' decisions, at least not directly. But they can contribute to the mood and momentum of the overall campaign, and they have often been more fun to watch.

The conventional wisdom is that Vice President Cheney will be under increased pressure to defend the invasion of Iraq because his boss was rather underwhelming in doing so in Coral Gables last week.

Cheney had already been under some degree of stress in this test. For better or worse, the quadrennial TV debates between the national tickets are seen as a measure of the candidates' likeability as much as their capability. Personality is not the vice president's long suit. He has 30 years of top-level Washington experience and a well-earned reputation for toughness, but these very assets have in a sense created a liability. They have left the public with an impression of Cheney as cold-eyed, corporate and unfeeling.

This stands in stark contrast with Cheney's opponent, Sen. John Edwards, known for persuasive Southern charm and youthful good looks. Although just 12 years Cheney's junior, he appears and acts at least a generation younger. Edwards is famed for connecting with juries, and has had some luck with TV audiences as well. Yet he is also possessed of a savvy and lawyerly mind, which he has used to make a fortune in tort law.

In fact, Cheney and Edwards epitomize the battle between business and the current tort system, with its reliance on juries and tolerance of huge awards for punitive damages. Cheney represents the boardroom wizard of Halliburton, moving capital and labor on a global scale. Edwards is the plaintiff's attorney who not only siphons off stockholders' equity but forces changes in corporate behavior, as well.

The two men are poles apart in other respects, of course. Edwards fashions himself a populist progressive, Cheney a classic conservative with a libertarian streak compatible with Wyoming's frontier traditions. Both have been legislators, but Edwards was the type who ran for president while still in his first Senate term. Cheney served as staff in Congress and the White House, put in 10 years as a House member, rose to the leadership and a cabinet post and eventually to vice president.

So it is hard to imagine a debate dynamic in which Edwards does not play the hare and Cheney the turtle. But consider how that famous fable turned out. Or consider its replay in 2000, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, running mate to Democratic nominee Al Gore, danced rhetorical rings around the stolid Cheney to little avail. Each time Lieberman tried to take a poke at his opponent, his hand came back with a bite taken out.

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