A few words about a love, hate relationship that could decide this election…
Tonight’s tempest in Tempe could not loom much larger. The candidates are neck and neck and the first two debates (especially the first one) have had a big impact on the race. So what can we expect? Who has to accomplsh what? Who will win? And will anyone get off a line that compares with the now legendary: “Need some wood?”
Before one makes any predictions, it’s crucial to look at what the numbers and the trends of the last few weeks tell us.
For Kerry, this debate is about crossing a threshold. For Bush its about making sure he doesn’t cross one.
Bush’s low approval numbers should have turned these debates into an afterthought. More than enough people don’t want W to be president for another four years. But John Kerry has not managed to convince enough people that he is the guy who should be. And there’s the rub.
This Kerry threshold will be an absolute focal point for both candidates tonight. Bush will hit him hard while trying to avoid a detailed discussion of his own four year record (a strategy honed throughout the campaign). Expect Bush to repeat the words liberal and taxes so many times that it will make the phrase hard work look like a slip of the tongue. Bush will also play to his base as he and his campaign team have come to terms with the fact that three years and nine months is enough time to dedicate to the attracting of undecideds.
Those undecideds are still Kerry’s to lose. But to get them, he has to convince them that he is the guy who should be president (convincing them that W is not that guy may not be enough).
That’s the threshold that Kerry must cross and given his debate vs stump speech performances to date, tonight may be the best (an perhaps the last) chance he’s got.
For W, the threshold is a little more subtle. He has to pound on Kerry without being just too damn hateable. That’s his own threshold and he must not cross it. And given his performance in the first two debates, his task will not be easy.
The X factor in this election is how much people hate George W Bush. Don’t get me wrong. The President has the fervent backing of millions of voters. But while voters aren’t sure about John Kerry, they’re really sure about George W Bush.
Bush needs to keep Kerry from tempting too many undecideds. But in doing so he cannot look too petty, too petulant, too angry, too immature or too nasty (in other words, he can’t look like he’s looked in the first two debates). If he does, then those undecideds who are either disinterested or just plain disgusted by both sides will be motivated enough roll out of bed on election day, walk through the rain, stand in line at their polling place and vote against the President.
This race could come down to turnout. Those who don’t like the President but aren’t sold on Kerry may just sit this thing out. If the “don’t like” turns to hate, they’ll show up.
Kerry needs to be loved. Bush needs not to be hated. Winner take all.