With the first of three presidential debates less than one week away, the two major candidates -- President George Bush and Senator John Kerry -- are doing all they can to master the themes that matter most to voters. What are they? On Focus, VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the issues in this year’s presidential campaign.
MR. MORALES: The situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the economy, unemployment and social spending. With barely five weeks before the November election, which issues are resonating with voters? And why?
For a closer look we turn to: 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. At this point, is there as single issue driving voters?
MR. MARSHALL: The war in Iraq, particularly, and the war on terror have to a striking degree eclipsed the whole domestic agenda in this election. We just don’t hear much about the job insecurities that are evident across this country, the fiscal meltdown in Washington, the health care problems and rising poverty. They’ve all been shoved aside by really a relentless focus on security issues by both campaigns, with the Iraq war at the center.
MR. MORALES: Dave Keene, is there a single make or break issue resonating with voters?
MR. KEENE: I think that Will is right. In part, it’s a result of the focus on what’s going on abroad and the war on terror. And in part, it’s a focus on the change in the economy. After all, the unemployment rate today is lower than it was in November when Bill Clinton was elected president. And so the economy is coming back. And that sort of has removed the urgency with which people were addressing those issues.
In this dangerous world in which we live, which of these candidates is best able or will be best able to deal with whatever happens in the next four years? I think everything is going to hinge on the voters’ answer to that question.
MR. MORALES: Will Marshall?
MR. MARSHALL: President Bush has put all of his eggs in one basket. One of the reasons we’re not talking about domestic agendas is that this president doesn’t have much of a domestic agenda, to be honest. The Republican convention was stage-managed to pose the question that Dave just posed to our listeners. And George Bush has conducted a campaign to undermine public confidence and trust in Kerry and the Democrats when it comes to keeping the country strong and keeping it safe. So I don’t think that economic worries have really receded perhaps as much as David thinks. I just believe that this president has staked his whole re-election campaign on the question of who do you want to defend you in this time of troubles.
MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with Will Marshall: When all is said and done, are we talking about a referendum on all of the issues relating to the Bush presidency?
MR. MARSHALL: I think that it’s in Senator Kerry’s interest to make it a wider referendum because I really believe that many Americans think that the country is on the wrong track on the economy. Despite some good numbers on unemployment, there is widespread anxiety about jobs disappearing -- middle class jobs disappearing -- and rising health care costs. So I think there is an unsettled feeling out there that this administration perhaps is inattentive to the economic and domestic worries of the American people. So I think Kerry needs to expand the debate to cover those issues. And I presume he’ll do that as we head into the first presidential debate at the end of this month.
MR. MORALES: And David Keene, you get the last word.
MR. KEENE: Well in fact, Kerry is narrowing the debate and is trying to focus more on Iraq than he is on domestic issues, for some of the reasons I think I discussed already. But you know, any election -- particularly an election when an incumbent is running -- is a judgment on everything that incumbent has done and whether the people want to re-hire him and trust him in the future. Some people, most people perhaps, will vote on the question of terrorism and on the question of who is best suited to lead the nation in this time of crisis. Others will vote on the economy. What this election is going to turn on is (voter) turn out. And that’s not going to be so much directed to the issues because at the end of the day, I think both of these parties and both of these candidates are going to be within striking distance of the White House. And it’s going to turn on whose voters are more motivated, and which party and which campaign has the superior ability to deliver those voters to the polls on November 2nd.
MR. MORALES: We’ll have to leave it there. Join me next week when my guests David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute discuss the Bush and Kerry campaign strategies.
That’s next time on Focus. I’m Victor Morales.