Massachusetts Senator John Kerry wins nine of the ten state primaries and caucuses this week, virtually locking-in the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. How did he do it? And what’s in store for American voters between now and the November election? On Focus, VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on Senator Kerry’s victory and the race for the White House.
MR. MORALES: John Kerry, who in just a few months rose from being what many observers thought was a political long shot, is now all but assured of being his party’s presidential nominee. Since the Iowa Caucuses six weeks ago, Senator Kerry’s two major opponents -- Vermont Governor Howard Dean and North Carolina Senator John Edwards -- have dropped out of the race, leaving him virtually unopposed for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
And this week, Republicans launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign aimed re-electing President Bush. So what can voters expect during the next eight months?
Joining me to examine this week in U.S. politics are: David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization. And, Will Marshall -- President of the Progressive Policy Institute, which seeks to define and promote liberal politics here in the United States.
Will Marshall, let me begin with you. What accounts for the Kerry landslide so far?
MR. MARSHALL: I think John Kerry began this race as the presumptive front runner -- a military veteran who, presumably, could blunt Republican claims that Democrats are soft on defense. He had plenty of money and a certain kind of presidential character or gravitas (i.e., substance) that I think people have picked up on in this primary season. Then he was eclipsed by the rapid ascent of Howard Dean. And when Dean collapsed, a lot of his support shifted to Kerry. The other big factor in this race was the compression of the primary calendar. The races were stacked so closely together that whoever came out of Iowa (i.e., the Iowa Caucuses) ahead was riding a strong wave of momentum throughout the contest. And certainly Kerry won Iowa and never stopped winning.
MR. MORALES: Dave Keene, do you see it that way?
MR. KEENE: The key here is the nomination primary and caucus schedule because each primary and each caucus impacts the next one. And Iowa, New Hampshire and the rest are now bunched so closely together that it’s virtually impossible for somebody who doesn’t start out winning at the beginning to get back in and win. And what we’ve done with this schedule is pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be over very, very quickly because of the psychological impact of one primary on another. So when Howard Dean began his collapse, and in Iowa the votes went to somebody who wasn’t Dean, Kerry was the primary beneficiary. Kerry was almost a ‘slam dunk’ (i.e., easily assured) to win from that point on.
MR. MORALES: David Keene, let me stay with you for just a moment. Now that it appears that Senator Kerry has all but locked up the Democratic Party nomination, can we expect the campaign rhetoric to heat up between Senator Kerry and President Bush? In other words, is this now actually the start of the general election campaign?
MR. KEENE: In a sense it is. But actually when you’re talking about the campaign, you’re talking about the public. The public tends to focus on political matters when there are decisions being made. People were very focused in while the Democratic presidential nomination was up for grabs. Now that that has been fairly much decided, I think that what you’re going to find is that people aren’t going to pay as much attention from now until the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, and the actual campaign. That’s not to say that the candidates won’t be sniping at each other. But what they’ll really be doing during this period will be each trying to solidify their base in preparation for the general election campaign in September and October.
MR. MARSHALL: I generally agree with David, but with this exception. Back in 1996, Bill Clinton knew early on that his opponent was going to be Bob Dole. And the Clinton White House spent a lot of time and money on advertising and politicking before the race heated up in the fall in order to try to consolidate its advantages and to score some points on Bob Dole. And I think they did that very effectively and in such a way that Dole never really got into the race. This time, I think the Bush administration is going to take a page from the Clinton campaign. They’re going to spend $ 100 million on advertising, according to media reports. It’s expected to start soft and positive. But I have a feeling it will turn negative before too long. And I think that there will be a real attempt to drive up John Kerry’s ‘negatives’ (i.e., his negative public approval ratings), as they say in the political business, because what has happened in the primaries is that the Democratic Party has gained. It has been a good clean race, we’ve had attractive candidates, and we’ve found that the Democratic primary electorate is energized and focused on beating George Bush. So we’ve seen the Democratic Party’s standing as a whole rise in the last several months. And I think that the Bush White House will want to fight back. They’re going to want to score some points on John Kerry.
MR. KEENE: I think there will be some of that, Will. And you’re absolutely right in that because of the way this nomination struggle in the Democratic Party unfolded -- with Dean sort of self-destructing because of his own comments -- the candidates had the luxury early on of either focusing their attacks on a candidate who wasn’t going to be there or on the president. The attacks primarily were on the president, especially in the Democratic debates, and most of the advertising was directed against Bush. And that has energized the base of the Democratic Party. There will be a dropping down of Kerry’s ‘positives’ (i.e., his positive public approval ratings) -- maybe partly as a result of paid advertising by Republicans, maybe partly as a result of additional scrutiny by the media. But at this point, he is about as well positioned as you could expect a challenger to be based on the way he came out of the nomination fight.
MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with David Keene: Given that the country is fairly evenly divided between the two major parties, Senator Kerry has to appeal not only to Democrats, but also to Republicans and Independent voters if he’s going to win in November. Do we have a good sense of how he fares among those voters?
MR. KEENE: We don’t yet because he is undefined at this point in the minds of most voters. But John Kerry has some problems. He is a very liberal senator from a region of the country that is already Democratic. He is going to have to reach out. Both candidates (Kerry and Bush), I think, are going to be working to energize their base. Ten or 15 years ago, you went into a general election with maybe 20 or 30% in the middle (i.e., independent or undecided voters). This time, you don’t. You have a deeply divided electorate with maybe 8-to-10% in the middle. So there’s actually more votes to be had, if you can work the ‘turnout game,’ if you can get more of your people to the polls. And I think the result of that will be that while there are going to be ‘air wars’ (i.e., broadcast advertising campaigns) -- and there’s a lot of money on both sides for that -- the real action this time is going to be on the part of both campaigns in trying to get out their base vote. That’s where they’re going to make a difference.
MR. MORALES: And Will Marshall, you get the last word.
MR. MARSHALL: I agree with David. I think this is an extraordinarily polarized electorate. The swing in the middle is smaller than we’ve seen in recent elections. How do you get from 45 to 51% of the vote? And you’ve got to win those votes across the independent and moderate center. There’s going to be a lot of attention and money devoted to a relative handful of Americans who don’t wake up every morning either loving or hating George Bush. So that while now the premium will be on energizing the base, which on the Democratic side is already energized and I don’t think Republicans will have trouble getting theirs geared up, still in the end it’s going to be a contest of messages that brings in that crucial increment of votes that holds the balance of power in American politics.
MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union; and Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute.