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Inside Politics

Swinging the swing voters


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During a 1976 Ford-Carter debate, Ford made a factual mistake concerning Poland's sovereignty.
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America Votes 2004
Carlos Watson

(CNN) -- In this edition of The Inside Edge, which single issue could sway the swing voters, what Republicans are doing to expand their Senate majority and how gay marriage and minimum wage are more than mere hot button issues in a volatile race.

That's debatable

Televised presidential debates have often included a single moment determining the election's outcome, swaying critical swing voters toward one candidate or another.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan torpedoed Jimmy Carter with his famous line, "There you go again" and turned a close contest into a 10-point blowout.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost a double-digit lead and then the election after he answered without any apparent feeling or emotion, moderator Bernie Shaw's question as to whether he theoretically would support the death penalty for someone who raped his wife.

So will the 2004 debates -- which may begin September 30 in Coral Gables, Florida -- be just as pivotal?

You bet.

And what will they turn on -- a personality quirk like Gore sighing impatiently during a debate with Bush in 2000, a factual slip-up as in 1976 when President Ford said Poland was not under control of Soviet Union, or a deeper discussion on an important issue?

My best guess is that the debate, and possibly the election, will turn on the issue of military pre-emption.

While pre-emption is not the kind of phrase that ordinary voters offer up when queried about key election issues, it does get to the heart of a central worry for many swing voters: Who will keep them safe "no matter what" in a post-9/11 world?

At some point in the debates, I expect President Bush and John Kerry to engage on the controversial new issue of keeping America safe post September 11-- when and how in a dangerous world can America strike another country preemptively as we did in Iraq?

When Bush and Kerry face off on the issue, I suspect that voters will make up their minds not just based on what they say, but how they say it. Confidence and toughness will be measured as much as policy -- in particular, John Kerry's confidence and toughness.

As he and the president exchange views on the issue, if people feel that Kerry has an aggressive security plan, that includes pre-emption, and believe that he is truly tough enough to use it, the president's re-election bid may begin a strong slide downward.

If, on the other hand, the president is able to convince voters that Kerry just doesn't have the stomach to pull the trigger, then swing voters in Arizona, Florida and elsewhere may quickly decide that they can't trust "the liberal Massachusetts senator" the next time the country comes under attack.

For committed Democrats, this logic will seem perverse. "Bush messed up the preemption doctrine in Iraq, but now the other guy's commitment to preemption will be tested?" they'll ask.

But mark my words, a key turning point in this year's debates -- perhaps the single most crucial point, in fact -- will come on the issue of preemption, and Democrats will be hoping that John Kerry can rise to the challenge.

Seeing red in the Senate

With all of the news about the resignation of New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey as well as Democratic excitement over Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, who now leads his opponent by more than 30 points in recent polls, one of the big political stories that has been lost over the last several weeks is how well-situated Republicans now are to hold onto control of the Senate.

If you consider Georgia's Zell Miller a Republican and Vermont's Jim Jeffords a Democrat, Republicans currently control the Senate 52-48. Those numbers could get better for the GOP in November.

Republicans have been busy lining up candidates who can win races in five of this year's eight open Senate contests (no incumbent running) including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma and significantly Colorado. And they are likely to place strong challengers in Florida and Louisiana as well.

In addition to fielding able challengers in open seats, incumbent Republican senators in some toss-up presidential states (where Kerry and Bush are running neck and neck) have thus far prevented their contests from becoming too close. Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio all look good for the incumbents who each enjoy solid leads in recent polls.

So although Democrats may knock off an incumbent Republican in Alaska and could perhaps win three or four open seats, they will still likely fall short by several seats in order to gain a majority of 51.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and the elections -- Democratic challengers could catch momentum, or Kerry could get hot in the presidential race and provide some "coattail" popularity to Senate candidates as presidential candidate Ronald Reagan did in 1980. I'll keep my eye out.

But for now, mark it down -- Republicans are the odds-on favorites to win control of the Senate in November.

Motivating with money and marriage

Over the last three decades, Republicans have very skillfully used hot button ballot initiatives on issues like taxes, gun rights and immigration to increase voter turnout and win close state elections. Two recent examples are California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 (anti-immigration) and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2002 (Confederate flag).

This year, however, may mark the first time that a ballot initiative strategy is being employed to help the presidential campaigns increase turnout in key states on a broad scale. And what's even more intriguing is that Republicans are not the only ones doing it any more. Democrats have now gotten smart and joined the fun.

With their eye on increasing voter registration by anywhere from 1 percent - 9 percent, Republicans are likely to place gay marriage initiatives on the November ballot in five critical swing states -- Michigan, Arkansas, Oregon, Ohio and Kentucky.

Not to be outdone, Democrats have put minimum wage increase initiatives onto the ballot in Nevada and Florida. By offering a dollar raise in the minimum wage to $6.15, Democrats hope to boost voter turnout among Democratic-leaning lower income voters (especially people of color) in these two critical swing states (each was decided by less than 4 percent in 2000).

In a year with more than 100 ballot measures, there are three other intriguing ones worth knowing about besides gay marriage and the minimum wage. Join me next week, when I unveil the other key initiatives that could affect 2004.


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