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The U.S. Presidential Campaign: The Strategies - 2004-09-29

With five weeks until the U.S. presidential election, most public opinion polls show George Bush leading John Kerry. But many observers say the race is still too close to call. The country is ideologically divided and there are millions of undecided voters who could tip the balance in either man’s favor. On Focus, VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on how the candidates plan to win in November.

MR. MORALES: With the country almost evenly split in support of President Bush and Senator Kerry, how do the candidates plan to win enough votes to take the White House?

For a closer look we turn to: Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute, which seeks to define and promote liberal politics here in the United States. And David Keene, Chairman of the American Conservative Union -- the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots conservative political organization.

David Keene, with just a few weeks to go, what’s the strategy for the candidates?

MR. KEENE: Regardless of the way the polls swing, we’re a nation that is relatively evenly divided in a partisan and ideological sense. So turnout can make all of the difference. The Democrats, historically, have done a better job at this. And that showed in 2000, when Al Gore ran ahead of his poll numbers. This time, both campaigns are putting enormous resources into building a ground army capable of identifying and delivering their people to the polls. We see on the news, we see all of the discussion of the debates and the issues, and this and that and the other. But if in fact, the electorate is as evenly divided as most people think it is, it’s going to be that less visible effort that’s going to make all the difference. That does dictate some of the public things that these campaigns do. They’re both as interested or more interested in motivating their own people than they are in really going after those folks who are in the middle for a lot of reasons. There aren’t as many of them and if it’s close, its going to depend on the motivation of their own base more than it is on the few people that they might get in the middle.

MR. MORALES: Will Marshall, let me get your take on that.

MR. MARSHALL: I guess I would disagree with David. I think turnout obviously is going to be important to both sides and they’re both spending extraordinary amounts of money to get their core voters energized and to the polls. But I really do believe that in the end there’s a small core of people -- 5-to-8% of the electorate perhaps -- that just hasn’t made up its mind yet. And I think how they decide is going to decide this election, not turnout strategies, the ground game by either party.

MR. MORALES: Will, let me stay with you for just a moment. Earlier in the campaign, John Kerry seemed to have trouble defining himself to voters. Is he beyond that now?

MR. MARSHALL: I think not. That’s why I do believe that the debates are essential. The debates are a chance for people who really don’t know what he stands for to hear directly from him what his core convictions are and how he would differ from George Bush on the three or four big issues facing the country.

MR. KEENE: I think Will is exactly right. The debates are John Kerry’s last chance. And Will is also right in that it’s a little bit like an arms race. If both sides have an equally effective get out the vote operation, then it is going to turn on those few people who are in the middle. And there fewer people in the middle this year than at any time in modern American history. It’s going to turn on what those people do. The question is whether the two campaigns are equally well armed or effective in this area. And that we won’t know until election day.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left and I would like to ask each of you, beginning with David Keene: What should we -- the American voters -- be focusing on during the last few weeks of this campaign?

MR. KEENE: We should be looking at several things. One, where do the candidates stand on the issue of concern to you? Secondly, which of these candidates do you really trust to give you the kind of leadership and credibility that you seek? When people voted for George Bush in 2000, nobody was looking toward September 11th. I think that he got high marks for the way he solved that. But that’s the nature of the kind of thing that people are looking to their presidential candidates for. It’s very complicated and it’s more complicated than any other vote that’s cast. But that’s what you look for.

MR. MORALES: And Will Marshall, you get the last word.

MR. MARSHALL: The Republican strategy by President Bush is to frame this race as a choice of character. He is contrasting his allegedly strong and decisive character against Kerry’s allegedly wavering and vacillating one. And Kerry’s strategy is to say, ‘Well, the man may be decisive and resolute in his decision making, but he makes the wrong decisions and sticks with them long after the evidence has shown they aren’t the right decision.’ That’s the debate.

MR. MORALES: And that brings our debate to a close. I would like to thank my guests: Will Marshall, President of the Progressive Policy Institute; and David Keene Chairman of the American Conservative Union.

For Focus, I’m Victor Morales.