WASHINGTON – The juices are flowing,but they're not apple,orange or grape. They're partisan juices – the kind that really come out the closer the nation gets to an election.
And the nation can expect a very close race come November,said four political experts in a debate Friday.
“It's going to be a really,really,really close election – I think it's going to come down to about 17 states,” said political analyst Charlie Cooke. “I'm ecstatic. There's nothing worse than a boring presidential election.”
One of those 17 make-or-break states is Ohio,and the panelists agreed that having Ohio on board is crucial.
“The Midwest will be the real battleground,and the state to watch will be Ohio,” said Scott Reed,GOP strategist and former campaign manager for Bob Dole. “No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.”
But if Joe Lockhart,former press secretary for Bill Clinton,is right,Ohio might not matter.
“None of the Democratic candidates will beat President Bush,” Lockhart said. “I think President Bush will beat President Bush.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday showed 50 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance,the lowest of his presidency. The poll also showed Sen. John Kerry beating Bush 52 to 43 percent.
Bush “has had a humongously awful month,” said Stu Rothenberg,a political analyst. Rothenberg added that,if a majority of people say things are headed in the wrong direction,the president is undoubtedly “toast” and voters should prepare for a change of power.
“The budget,the deficit,increased casualties overseas … he's ill-advised that we'll go to the moon,Mars,some other galaxy – I don't know,” Rothenberg said,as he rattled off a list of things for which the president is under scrutiny. “This election could go either way.”
Reed said he thinks voters will “cling” to their incumbent president.
“This election is framed around ‘Are you safer now than you were four years ago? Who will protect your family better?'” Reed said. “Kerry is lightly tested to date and is about to enter a really long five months. Running against the incumbent president is really difficult to do.”
For one thing,Bush has more campaign money than Kerry.
“I could give you 100 million reasons why Bush is going to win – because that's how much he has in the bank right now,” Reed said.
And although Reed said “people vote for their pocketbook at the end of the day,” the panelists also mentioned jobs,foreign policy,Medicare,taxes and the war as issues that will matter come election time.
Lockhart said the National Guard issue is a serious credibility problem for Bush because the public gave him the benefit of the doubt in 2000 about his military service,but now it's in the spotlight.
Something Bush should keep out of the spotlight is the Medicare bill,which has left many senior citizens unhappy,Rothenberg said.
“The insurance-compensation bailout plan – excuse me – Medicare plan?” Lockhart asked. “The more that's known about this bill,the easier it becomes for Democrats because it is a bad bill.”
But panelists said the Bush administration would have been in more trouble if the bill hadn't passed,because according to Cooke,the president's weak spots are people under 30 and over 65.
He said another problem for Bush is the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
On Sunday's “Meet the Press” on NBC,the president told the public,“We're a nation at war,” Lockhart said.
“I don't think this is a country that believes they're at war right now,” Lockhart said. “I think the farther from the coasts people are,the less under siege people think they are.”
Kerry's record will soon be examined in the same detail as Bush's,Reed said. Kerry is an “unpainted picture,” Reed said,while Bush's base within the Republican Party is strong.
Strong base or not,something other than Ohio could sway the result – voters who are in between parties.
“Independent swing voters are a very scary thing for the White House right now,” Lockhart said. “They're moving on things that are outside of presidential control.”
The swing voters could be vital to either candidate in what is likely to end up as a close race. Lockhart said close races bring out the worst in candidates.
“Close fights are tough fights,” Cooke agreed. “And tough fights tend to be dirtier fights.”