The homestretch

Posted: Oct 19, 2004 12:00 AM

With just two weeks to go, President Bush appears to have shed himself of the post-debate blues and again gained momentum in this seesaw contest for the White House. And as always seems to be the case over the last few years, Florida perhaps best measures the latest swing in national sentiment; a swing that might be the final one.

 Immediately following the final presidential debate last week in Arizona, our InsiderAdvantage tracking poll in Florida showed John Kerry inching ahead of Bush.

 But that lead vanished by last weekend, following a Bush campaign swing through some parts of South Florida that many pundits and analysts have believed are solidly Democratic. One was Broward County, home to fervent Democrats and much controversy following the 2000 election. But it's also home to hundreds of thousands of registered Republicans. Their willingness to turn out and cast ballots could conceivably decide the whole national election.

 Bush's latest resurgence can't be attributed wholly to his barnstorming in South Florida, or anywhere else. Most polls had been showing Kerry ahead or tied with Bush immediately following the third debate. Then came the delayed -- and media-boosted -- reaction by most Americans against Kerry's reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's gay daughter. The discussion had been a back-and-forth on gay marriage, but Kerry's inserting the vice president's family into the exchange appeared gratuitous. Critically, it opened up an opportunity for the Republican ticket to cry foul.

 The Kerry blunder is magnified by the late hour of the campaign, and by the fact that he and his campaign team keep taking the GOP bait by continuing to comment on the matter.

 This is the point in political races at which many candidates are inclined to look for the polls to validate their wishes, rather than letting them guide strategy. Let's look at the variables that might still force the Republicans to see Kerry as a potentially mortal foe.

 First, polls. The companies polling the race inevitably conduct their polls differently. Some query registered voters, others "likely voters" within the list of registered voters. Just as inevitably, these different methodologies render different results.

 Of late, the stakes and the tensions in the Bush-Kerry race have been so high that it seems a puff of wind can suddenly yield dramatically reversed results from the same pollsters' efforts of just days before.

 All the more reason to use Florida as a microcosm of the whole nation -- the Sunshine State's electorate as a whole is clearly volatile and unpredictable. If there were to be some out-of-the-blue, Monday-before-the-election trend toward Kerry, it could create a final sense of momentum.

 Second, turnout. There isn't a person alive who can accurately project what voter turnout will be on Nov. 2, at least not without a lucky guess. The notion that Democrats hold an edge in Florida because they want "revenge" for alleged electoral fraud is purely anecdotal.

 There have been reports that on the first day of "early voting" in Florida, long lines of voters wrapped around key precincts in heavily Democratic areas like Palm Beach County. But there have also been projections that millions of evangelical Christians sat out the 2000 elections across the nation, and that they are set to storm the polls Nov. 2 on President Bush's behalf.

 Third, watch for sudden, last-minute events. Not necessarily something as monumental and catastrophic as a terrorist attack (which would almost surely help the incumbent president), but something like a steep drop in the financial markets or another verbal gaffe by Bush or Kerry.

 Cutting through all this muddle and speculation, George W. Bush seems to have a slight upper hand. For Kerry, there are no more grand stages like a convention acceptance speech or a televised debate with which to capture the nation's attention as a whole. It's now just campaign trail speeches and commercials.

 Virtually every poll shows that Americans believe President Bush is better suited to deal with the ultimate issue of our time -- terrorism. Kerry made the fateful choice a while back to center his candidacy around Bush's mishandling of the war on terror. Now it may be too late to shift the focus to America's perceived economic woes.

 The race for president is not over. But if Kerry loses, it will be because he failed to realize that Iraq is not enough of a daily reality to people in places like Florida to make it the fundamental concern in their lives. Now his chances are down to a reliance on the unknown and the unforeseen. That's never been a strong position in any venture. Certainly not this one.