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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Ultimate Expectation

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; 9:09 AM

The press, naturally enough, is filled with talk of polls and strategy and beating the drums for the Florida face-off as the pivotal, crucial and possibly rather important event of the homestretch.

But I believe there's one overlooked aspect.

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It's not just who's ahead--most of all the in Key Battleground States--but who people think is going to win.

By that measure, the election is a runaway.

In a Post survey earlier this month, 63 percent of those questioned said they expect Bush to win. Even 32 percent of Kerry supporters had this expectation.

In a NYT poll, 61 percent expect Bush to capture a second term. Back in March, when Kerry was riding high after clinching the nomination, only 44 percent were expecting four more years.

Why does this matter? For one thing, it means Kerry hasn't really gotten over the threshold. If people don't think he's got a real shot at winning, it depresses interest in the election and means they spend less time, if any at all, trying to envision him as commander-in-chief. That, in turn, makes it harder for him to reduce the stature gap that any challenger faces against an incumbent.

Also affected is the conventional wisdom in the press. Every story about Kerry is framed in some way by him being behind in the polls. By October, you might start seeing pieces about which of Bush's Cabinet members would stick around in 2005, or whether the president will get serious about tax simplification. That sends a subtle message as well: Kerry is looking like a long shot.

So Kerry not only has to catch up (to the degree these volatile polls show him behind), but has to be perceived as catching up. Which is why the media zeitgeist after the first debate will be so important, because it will affect the other debates as well.

Slate's Chris Suellentrop gets at this issue:

"When the Bush campaign released its TV ad last week featuring footage of John Kerry windsurfing, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry told me it was a good sign for his candidate. The windsurfing footage was a bullet that he knew the Bush campaign would use in an ad eventually, McCurry said, and the fact that they fired it now shows that they're worried, that they think Kerry is narrowing the gap with Bush.

"I wasn't sure whether McCurry actually believed this or if he just wanted to put the ad in the best possible light for the Democrats. But Sunday's Washington Post made me suspect that the Bush campaign really does think things are going poorly right now. Why? Because Republicans are starting to make preposterously overconfident predictions of a Bush landslide.

"National polls show that the presidential race has gotten closer since the Republican convention. . . . It's well-known that Karl Rove believes that swing voters like to vote for the winner. Therefore, one of the central political strategies for Bush has been to create an 'aura of inevitability' that, theoretically, will bring people to his side. If everyone believes you're a political juggernaut, the theory goes, then you will become a political juggernaut."

A version of this happened to Kerry in the post-Iowa primaries.

"The worse things get for Bush, the more likely his aides are to declare that he is invincible. The Bushies are starting to sound like Baghdad Bob, trumpeting a decisive victory for Saddam Hussein as the American military zooms into Iraq's capital city."

Holy cow--what a coincidence! A new Kerry "scandal" has emerged in the New York Post on the eve of the debate:

"John Kerry has suddenly become the man with a tan that even George Hamilton would envy -- leading to accusations that something is shady just before the big presidential debate.

"How the Democratic presidential candidate got his striking new orange glow depends on whom you ask.

"The Kerry camp reportedly insisted he earned it fair and square -- by baking in the sun during a game of flag football last Friday in Bedford, Mass.

"But a top New York dermatologist -- after studying new photos of Kerry -- told The Post yesterday that the deep bronze color appears to be one big fake."

Even faker than the paper's story on Gephardt as Kerry's running mate?

I wonder if talk radio will start buzzing about TanScam.

Paul Krugman now sees the press as embeds of the right:

"Let's face it: whatever happens in Thursday's debate, cable news will proclaim President Bush the winner. This will reflect the political bias so evident during the party conventions. It will also reflect the undoubted fact that Mr. Bush does a pretty good Clint Eastwood imitation.

"But what will the print media do? Let's hope they don't do what they did four years ago"--meaning failing to fact-check what Krugman sees as Bush's lies while harassing Al Gore over trivia.

"The result of this emphasis on the candidates' acting skills rather than their substance was that after a few days, Mr. Bush's defeat in the debate had been spun into a victory."

Of course, there were two more debates, and Gore wasn't seen as winning either of them.

Here's my take on the media's role, from this morning's paper:

When John Kerry and George W. Bush step off a University of Miami stage at 10:30 tomorrow night, the battle will just be getting under way.

Just ask Chris Lehane, who was Al Gore's spokesman when quickie polls showed his man winning the first debate against Bush by as much as 14 points. But Bush operatives began highlighting small errors Gore had made -- such as saying he had visited Texas with the federal disaster director, not the assistant director -- and calling the network morning shows with examples. By the time the New York Post ran the headline "Liar! Liar!," the media consensus was that a heavy-sighing Gore had blown it.

"We went through the debate thinking Gore had done pretty well," Lehane says. "But the Bush campaign seized on the mistakes and did a pretty effective job of focusing attention on them. That played into the negative story line on Gore."

Says Stuart Stevens, a Bush adviser then and now: "The Gore people were totally convinced they had won overwhelmingly. We were in a room next to them and we could hear them yelling and chanting."

Tens of millions of Americans will watch the first of three Bush-Kerry debates and draw their own tentative conclusions as to who got the best of it. But perceptions can shift as commentators, analysts and spinners chew things over and selected sound bites are endlessly replayed on television, creating "moments" that may not have seemed particularly dramatic at the time.

The post-debate debate "can influence things in a major way," says Scott Reed, who was Bob Dole's 1996 campaign manager. "Most people watching aren't sitting with pad and paper keeping score, except for the media. The 72 hours after the debate are when all the decisions are made, both at the water cooler and on the front pages of papers."

Stevens trots out a sports analogy, saying that "we all watch the Super Bowl, but we enjoy what the guys in the booth are saying. After the debates, it's not really over, it's halftime. The postgame spin helps frame the next debate as well."

Far more than most campaign events, the debates are unfiltered, in the sense that they are 90 uninterrupted minutes of the candidates going at it. Initial impressions will likely form around the Bush and Kerry styles -- did the president smirk, was the senator sufficiently likable -- as much as about the specifics of Jim Lehrer's questions on foreign policy.

"Viewers, without the aid of snarky commentators, noticed shall we say Al Gore's breathing problems during his sighs in the debate," says USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. But, he says, "once you've seen the debate, the commentary brings it home to you: This is what was really important."

Something along those lines happened with July's Democratic convention, which was initially depicted by most reporters and pundits as a solid success. But as Kerry slipped in the polls, the conventional wisdom, driven in part by Republican carping, became that he had spent too much time talking about his Vietnam service and not enough about his agenda for the country. Now the media routinely describe the Boston gathering as somewhere between a missed opportunity and a flop.

The classic example of a debate that morphed into a debacle was Gerald Ford's Oct. 6, 1976 face-off with Jimmy Carter. A Washington Post story the next morning relegated to the 32nd paragraph Ford's statement that there was no Soviet domination of countries such as Poland. But the next day Carter called the remarks a "disgrace" and "very serious blunder," and on Oct. 8 a Post front-page story began: "President Ford's observation that 'there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe' poses an immediate problem for him . . . ." The media furor lasted for days until Ford acknowledged the obvious, by which time the damage had been done.

Some debate turning points are perfectly obvious at the time. Ronald Reagan looked old and a bit confused in his first 1984 encounter with Walter Mondale, especially when he ran out of time with his rambling closing remarks. Lloyd Bentsen scored a TKO with his "You're no Jack Kennedy" line against Dan Quayle in 1988. Michael Dukakis gave a bloodless answer that year to a question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife, forfeiting his last chance at overtaking the man now called Bush 41.

But four years later, when Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot met in a town meeting debate in Richmond, the initial press coverage was that the debate was largely uneventful, though Clinton was described as better at feeling the audience's pain. A Maureen Dowd sidebar in the New York Times, however, noted that Bush was "checking his watch" as the questioning about the economy dragged on, and the media soon seized on that glance as symbolic of a president bored by domestic policy.

No debate would be complete without the expectations game, the tired-but-true ritual in which each candidate's spinners try to build up the other guy. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd calls Kerry "the best debater since Cicero." Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart says the president "has never lost a debate that I know of." With those kinds of benchmarks, any sub-Cicero performance will seem like a colossal disappointment.

Slate political writer William Saletan calls the post-debate analysis "huge," noting that the average person probably doesn't watch the whole hour and a half, or raids the fridge in the middle, and goes to bed without a fixed view of the outcome.

"What are you going to remember? You remember what's repeated to you on TV or in the papers. It decides everything."

In the Los Angeles Times, Ron Brownstein sees "an unusual situation in which both candidates appear on the defensive over the same issue as they prepare for their first debate.

"Bush's approval rating on Iraq and support for his decision to invade improved through the summer. But they are slipping again amid the rising violence there. And in a Time magazine poll released Friday, 55% of voters said they believed the 'situation is worse than Bush has reported.'

"But Kerry's situation may be even more precarious. Several new polls have found that a majority of Americans do not believe he has offered a clear plan for improving conditions in Iraq. And the share of voters who see Kerry as a strong leader or as Bush's equal as a potential commander in chief has dropped sharply since July's Democratic National Convention."

The Note does some old-fashioned handicapping:

"The general election today is truly 13 or so separate elections in very different states with very different problems and opportunities for both campaigns. (Yes, a boost in the national horse race for Kerry -- most likely from the debates -- could change this calculus, but that's a discussion for another day -- like maybe Friday.)

"Every strategic decision the Kerry campaign makes today is based on the unforgiving mathematics of the Electoral College.

"And make no mistake -- the Senator's margin of error is at this point pretty small. There aren't that many plausible combinations of states that get him to the electoral Promised Land -- which means that almost any state he CAN win, at this point, he MUST win."

Salon's Farhad Manjoo, focusing on sites like Daily Kos, says the pajama brigade is having a big impact on the '04 race:

"Today, it seems that every political junkie online secretly (if not openly) believes he's James Carville, a strategist possessed of such uncontested political genius that a particular candidate would be crazy not to listen to his advice, especially if that particular candidate is John Kerry. It's possible to find people on the Web who'll claim that they could do at least as good a job in winning political races as the veteran consultants on the inside. So what if these people have never worked in any actual campaign? At least some of them were warning, months ago, that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth would be a problem for Kerry and that he should respond hard and fast -- an idea that Kerry's team would have been wise to consider.

"How is it possible that amateur political junkies are potentially having an effect on actual campaigns? The answer is that the Internet has fundamentally changed politics as we know it. There is just so much out there that we didn't have access to four years ago: polling data, fundraising data, media-buy data; instant access to every TV ad and press release and unguarded gaffe and well-timed leak to jolt the campaign; insider dish on what the media's covering and what it's not covering and why; and perhaps most fun of all, there are massive online communities in which hundreds of thousands of people submit their mostly corny, often silly, and sometimes unimaginably brilliant ideas for how this candidate or that should run his campaign. "

The Boss says the press is just dancin' in the dark, according to this Rolling Stone interview with Bruce Springsteen:

"The press has let the country down. It's taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply one side says this and the other side says that. I think that Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an incredible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their responsibility and righteous power.

"The Washington Post and New York Times apologies about their initial reporting about Iraq not being critical enough were very revealing. I am a dedicated Times reader, and I've found enormous sustenance from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd on the op-ed page. There has been great reporting, but there has also been some self-consciousness in some of the reporting about the policy differences in this election."

If he was a dedicated Post reader he'd know the paper didn't apologize but that editors admitted flaws and mistakes in interviews with me. Springsteen continues:

"This is going to be an issue after the election. I don't know if it began with the Iraq War, but shortly thereafter there was an enormous amount of Fox impersonators among what you previously thought were relatively sane media outlets across the cable channels. It was very disheartening. The job of the press is to tell the truth without fear or favor. We have to get back to that standard."

The "truth" as viewed by liberal rockers?

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