WASHINGTON -- For those of you who read my last column and are Bush supporters, you might have felt a bit discouraged. You might even be bordering on depression if you saw some Chicago Tribune polls showing John Kerry grabbing a lead in Ohio and Wisconsin. Don't be. The fact is Kerry is on the tail end of the bounce he received from the first debate.
All elections are like rivers. There are the events that float at the top and eventually sink or get beached on the shore. Then there are the undercurrents, themes that are permanent, flow continually, and for the most part eventually overwhelm the flotsam on the top.
The first presidential debate was something that floated at the top. Viewers were expecting to see a Kerry on the defensive and a President Bush who was strong and assured. Instead they saw not only a solid Kerry, but also an unconfident and annoyed President. That surprise changed some voters' minds in the short term and thus affected the polls. Before the debate a CBS-New York Times poll showed Bush up 51-42% among likely voters. A few days after the debate the same poll showed a tie at 47%.
But unless President Bush continued to perform badly in the debates, which he didn't, the debates were not going to become an undercurrent. Eventually, a lot of voters will say, "Anyone can have a bad night. Yes, John Kerry looked good. But I still don't know what he's going to do with Iraq or the War on Terror. I may not like everything Bush has done, but I know when it comes to war, he fights."
It is Kerry's weakness on national security that is one of the undercurrents of this election. His inability to hold to one position on Iraq and his unpersuasive claims that he would not let the United Nations (or France, or Germany -- take your pick) have a veto over America's foreign policy have stuck with voters. One good 90-minute performance is not been enough to assuage those concerns.
Indeed, on national security Kerry just can't seem to help himself. Consider what he has said since the first debate. At an October 5th town hall meeting, Kerry said, "Does this mean that allies are going to trade their young for our young in body bags? I know they are not. I know that," thereby undermining the part of his Iraq plan that relies on more allies sending in troops to help us. During the second debate, he reinforced his image as a flip-flopper. "I've never changed my mind about Iraq. I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat," he said. A little later he changed his mind: "the president has been preoccupied with Iraq, where there wasn't a threat." He also flip-flopped in the final debate, when he said, "No nation will ever have a veto over us." Did his remark in the first debate about a "global test" slip his mind? When Bush claimed in the second debate that if Kerry had been president Saddam Hussein would still be in power, Kerry responded, "Not necessarily in power." Confidence inspiring, no?
Then in a much noticed recent New York Times Magazine profile, Kerry showed that it still isn't clear what he would do on the War on Terror:
We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.
Comparing terrorism to "prostitution" and "illegal gambling" raised more doubts about how seriously Kerry takes national security. It also begged the question of whether before 9/11 Kerry viewed terrorism as a mere "nuisance."
The first debate is sinking from sight. The undercurrent of Kerry's weakness on national security is now, with the aid of Kerry himself, reemerging. The most recent CBS-New York Times poll now shows Bush leading again, 48-45%.
Two tracking polls, Rasmussen and Zogby, reveal a similar trend. Rasmussen showed Kerry pulling even a week ago, and now shows Bush with a lead. Zogby had Kerry in the lead a few days ago, but yesterday had Bush pulling slightly ahead. The state polls often lag the national ones, but it won't be much longer before Bush begins to gain on Kerry there as well.
The first debate was Kerry's finest moment in the campaign, and its effect is now dissipating. And Kerry is probably not done making remarks that reaffirm his weakness on the War on Terror. Unless Bush commits a major gaffe in the next two and a half weeks or Kerry somehow manages to convince voters he is strong on national security, expect Bush to continue slowly opening up a lead over Kerry in the polls.
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