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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

A Changing Political Landscape

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; 9:15 AM

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Shortly before the first presidential debate got underway here, Irish television reporter Carol Coleman asked the classic isn't-your-guy-in-deep-trouble question.

"How is John Kerry going to pull this one out of the bag?" she said, thrusting a mike at Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart.

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"This campaign has plenty of life in it," Lockhart insisted.

By yesterday morning, Newsweek's cover was trumpeting Kerry as "Off the Ropes." The Los Angeles Times front-page headline was "Viewers of First Debate Give Round One to Kerry." "It's a Horse Race Once Again," said the Chicago Tribune.

Why the "dramatic psychological shift," as The Washington Post put it? The answer, in large measure, is polls.

Kerry may have impressed much of the television audience with a strong debate performance Thursday night. But it was a September of sagging poll numbers that caused much of the downbeat coverage, and improved numbers -- starting minutes after the debate ended -- have journalists suddenly proclaiming that the senator might overtake President Bush.

"The polls drive media coverage," says Roger Simon, chief political correspondent of U.S. News & World Report and part of the media invasion in Coral Gables. "It controls the language. All of a sudden there's a front-runner and there's a challenger," and Kerry had been depicted as being "in a hole. He's trying to make up lost ground. He must close the gap. He must come from behind. It's voodoo news."

The alchemy is working, at least fleetingly. Newsweek has Kerry jumping to a 47 percent to 45 percent lead. And the "who won" polls Thursday night were all lopsided, with Kerry deemed the debate victor by 9 points (ABC), 16 (CNN) and 18 (CBS). Never mind that these are blurry snapshots (Al Gore won the first insta-polls in 2000) or that the surveys, financed and trumpeted by news outlets, have been unusually volatile this year.

After Bush bounced to a double-digit lead in some surveys after the Republican convention, reporters and pundits began downgrading Kerry's campaign skills and his team, creating a self-reinforcing reality.

"Polls have been so weird this year we all know not to rely on them," says Liz Marlantes, a Christian Science Monitor reporter. "But it's still really difficult because it's one of the only concrete things you have -- even though they're not concrete. Otherwise you go on what voters tell you, and that tends to be anecdotal." Besides, "the polls could all be wrong."

Conservatives believe many reporters are secretly rooting for Kerry, but there may be a more fundamental motivation, says John Harwood, political editor of the Wall Street Journal. For journalists, he says, "having a rooting interest in having a race may have a positive effect on the coverage of Kerry right now, because people have an incentive to say, 'We still have a contest.' " That, says Juan Williams of National Public Radio, is why political writers cast the debates "as Kerry's last big shot," while a loss would have been interpreted "as the beginning of the end."

Minutes before the debate, Time correspondent Matt Cooper said of the Kerry comeback scenario: "Everyone in this room wants to write it. They're aching to write it. When the polls close up, you'll see more of it."

He was right -- at least until the polls shift again.

Pink-Slipped Pollster Pollster Frank Luntz is crying foul after MSNBC canceled his long-scheduled focus group two days before the debate. Luntz, who is under contract to MSNBC, had already spent $30,000 on recruits for several focus groups and invited reporters in Florida to watch -- only to be told that the network didn't want to declare a winner in the debate.

"I think they buckled to political pressure," says Luntz, who has advised Republicans from Newt Gingrich to Rudy Giuliani but says he's done no GOP work since 2001. "They caved. . . . Why is it that Democrats are allowed to do this" after leaving politics, "but Republicans aren't?"

But MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines says: "We made a decision not to use focus groups as part of our debate coverage. This decision had nothing to do with Frank's past work or politics. We think our viewers should be able to make up their own minds without 'scientific' help" -- despite the fact that the network has prominently featured Luntz and his on-air focus groups for four years.

Luntz has criticized President Bush on occasion, and his non-televised focus group, ironically, favored Kerry in the debate. Some NBC executives find him extremely fair but believe his longtime GOP links create a perception problem.

"For me, nothing is more important than getting it right," Luntz says. He says MSNBC bowed to pressure from conservative-turned-liberal activist David Brock in dumping him and that the network hasn't even agreed to use him as an analyst -- sans focus groups -- in this week's debates.

It's official: CNBC has abandoned news, at least at night.

After dropping the signature newscast created by Brian Williams, the network is now axing its only Washington political show, "Capital Report," after the election.

"It's clear CNBC prime-time is going in a different direction," says co-host Alan Murray, who left the Wall Street Journal in 2002 to become the network's Washington bureau chief.

"Alan and I like to call this the little show that could," says the other co-host, Gloria Borger, who gave up her "Face the Nation" gig last year to join CNBC. "With a small staff, we sure got big guests."

Those guests included John Kerry, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney, who made news by ripping the New York Times. But big news didn't translate into big ratings -- "Capital Report" averaged 81,000 viewers this year -- and CNBC is going with the likes of Dennis Miller, John McEnroe and "The Apprentice" reruns.

Before the show, says Murray, "CNBC had no profile in Washington" -- a status it is likely to resume.

There's no escape for Dan Rather, even on the comics pages.

"Mallard Fillmore," a syndicated strip running in nearly 400 papers (though not The Washington Post), takes on the CBS docu-drama for a two-week run beginning today. In one strip, Rather is seen saying: "I'd like to clear the air and say the memos are, indeed, fakes . . . made by evil Bush operatives to make me look bad."

In another, Peter Jennings begins to tout "a hard-hitting, critical look at the whole CBS-Dan Rather mess. But then CBS might start doing stories about our mistakes. So instead, we bring you the third installment in our series, 'Does your pet watch too much television?'

" "Mallard" creator Bruce Tinsley, who styles himself as the conservative answer to "Doonesbury," admits he's "piling on," but says he's mocking a medium in which few are willing to concede bias in major mistakes. "I don't think Dan Rather is by any means the most liberally biased guy out there, but he may be the most colorful," says Tinsley.

Oops

A FoxNews.com story had some world-exclusive quotes from John Kerry, with the Democratic candidate telling a crowd after the debate: "Didn't my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate!. . . . Women should like me! I do manicures. . . . I'm metrosexual -- he's a cowboy."

But, as reported by liberal blogger Josh Marshall, this was fiction. Fox executives are furious with chief political correspondent Carl Cameron for writing a satire that mistakenly wound up on their Web site, prompting a retraction Friday.

"Carl made a stupid mistake, and he's been reprimanded for it," says Fox spokesman Paul Schur. "It was a poor attempt at humor and he regrets it very much. It was a lapse in judgment on his part."

Returning now to the theme at the top of the column, the coverage is all polls, polls, polls and a few focus groups, with Kerry rising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. Here's more on the Newsweek survey:

"Debates don't always shake up a presidential race, but this one did -- and there are two more, plus a vice presidential debate yet to come. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Bush's 49-43 percent lead in a three-way race has been erased, with Kerry now ahead 47-45 percent.

"Electoral politics is a game of comparison, and the first appearance of the two men side by side -- one having a good night, the other a bad one -- did wonders for Kerry's image. His 'favorable/unfavorable' rating, last month a tepid 48-44 percent, rose to 52-40 (while Bush's dropped from 52-44 to 49-46). A whopping 63 million voters watched the Miami debate, and Kerry was scored the winner by 61 percent of them; only 19 percent thought Bush had won. Among viewers, Kerry overwhelmingly was regarded as the better informed and more self-assured. More ominously for Bush, Kerry was seen as the stronger leader onstage (47-44 percent) -- and even as the more likable guy (47-41 percent). Bush aides privately had to admit that it was a race again, understating the obvious."

USA Today calls it a tie:

"The race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry has tightened dramatically since their first debate Thursday night, with the race now too close to call, according to the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll. The poll shows Bush and Kerry tied at 49% each among likely voters."

The Los Angeles Times has the race tightening as well:

"Sen. John F. Kerry improved his image with voters who watched his debate with President Bush last week, but didn't significantly shift their choice in the presidential race, a Times poll of debate viewers has found.

"Although the debate did not diminish impressions of Bush on most questions, it did restore some of the luster Kerry had lost amid relentless Republican pounding since his party's convention in July, the poll found.

"The key question will be whether those gains will help Kerry peel away voters from Bush in the days ahead.

"Of those who watched Thursday's debate, more than three times as many called Kerry the winner as picked Bush, the poll found. The Democratic nominee also made modest gains with viewers on questions relating to national security and leadership. And the portion of debate viewers with favorable perceptions of Kerry increased from 52% before to 57% after.

"Kerry's most dramatic advance in the survey came in convincing more voters that he had a thorough agenda for the next four years. Asked which candidate had the more detailed plan for the policies he would pursue if elected, viewers gave Bush a 9-percentage-point edge before the encounter; afterward, they preferred Kerry by 4 points."

The Chicago Tribune sees "a campaign that has gained a renewed aura of competitiveness since the two debated last week on television.

"After the first, widely watched Bush-Kerry debate -- and heading into the second in St. Louis on Friday -- observers say the opener gave Kerry a needed boost in a contest in which Bush had enjoyed a late-summer advantage."

When it comes to the mess in Iraq, says Slate's William Saletan, Bush "offers himself -- and you -- a way out. Ignore the bad news, he says. Ignore the evidence that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs had deteriorated. Ignore the evidence that Saddam had no operational relationship with al-Qaida. Ignore the rising casualties. Ignore the hollowness and disintegration of the American-led 'coalition.' If these reports are true, as Kerry suggests, then it was all a mistake. How can we ask our troops to die for a mistake? We can't. Therefore, these reports must be rejected. They must be judged not by evidence, but by their offensiveness to the assumptions we embraced when we went to war.

"In Thursday's debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush, 'Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives -- 1,052 as of today?' Bush looked down. He recalled a woman whose husband had died in Iraq. 'I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy,' the president said. 'Was it worth it? Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. . . . We can look back and say we did our duty.'

"That's how Bush judges the war's worth: not by costs and benefits, but by character. It shows our nobility. It shows we did our duty. He used the word 'duty' seven times. Kerry never used that word, except to refer to 'active duty' troops. Eleven times, Bush called the mess in Iraq 'hard work.' To recognize error would be to abandon that work and shirk our duty. Again and again, he framed the acceptance of bad news as moral failure. Will. Resolute. Steadfast. Uncertainty. Weakness. Supporting our troops."

Salon's Joe Conason says it's too soon for the Kerry team to break out the Champagne: "Stunned by George W. Bush's lackluster and peevish performance, his media claque had no time to recover to promote an effective line of propaganda on his behalf. On television and the Internet, the president's supporters were unable to conceal their dismay, instantly reinforced by the networks' polling verdicts. By Friday morning, conservative spin had devolved into excuses about his fatigue from comforting Florida hurricane victims -- and the official Republican and Bush Web sites weren't even claiming a victory for their candidate . . .

"The sounds of euphoria emanating from the Kerry campaign are understandable, after weeks of rumored disarray and discouraging headlines. But before overconfidence replaces dejection, Kerry and his advisors should remember a few important facts.

"This first debate didn't conclude the campaign argument over foreign policy, national security, terrorism and Iraq. For many voters, and especially for most undecided voters, that argument may have just begun on Thursday night. While Kerry made a better impression on those voters than Bush did, he may not have yet won their votes."

I've been searching far and wide for someone not on a partisan payroll who thinks Bush won the debate. And I've found one: Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page:

"Question: So, who do you think won the first debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry?

"Answer: Bush. By an eyelash.

"Q: What? I thought you were one of those bleeding-heart liberal types?

"A: Sometimes. Mostly I'm a wishy-washy, left-of-center moderate type, which sounds a lot like Kerry. Either way, I vote for the candidate, not the party. But how I vote is beside the point. I think Kerry won this debate on points. I'm an old high school debater. I know about points.

"And Kerry looked good. He showed that he has the stature, experience and brainpower to stand on the same stage with the president and challenge the big guy for his job. Bush looked (about half the time) like he was sucking on a lemon, especially when Kerry challenged any aspect of his judgment . . . "Kerry showed he could cram an encyclopedic amount of information on foreign affairs, the subject of last week's debate, into a two-minute answer. Those of us who have been closely following his past speeches were impressed by the brevity and focus of his answers, for a change.

"But Bush showed himself still to be the master of stretching about a dozen words of geopolitical vocabulary to fill out 90 minutes. The president's responses were tailor-made for people with short attention spans, whic h probably describes most undecideds. Let's face it, if they still haven't made up their minds at this late date, they really haven't been paying attention."


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