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Talking Points Live

Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Thursday, October 14, 2004; 1:00 PM

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have launched headfirst into the final stretch of the 2004 campaign.

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal took your questions on the campaigning, the candidates and last night's debate.

Terry Neal (post.com)

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Terry Neal: Welcome back all for my weekly chat. There's lots to talk about, including that titillating debate last night. Well, OK, maybe that's too strong a word for it. But whatever. Let's get right to it.



New York, N.Y.: Democrats are feeling exhilarated after the debates. They really are. Do you have a sense of how Republicans are feeling? For real?

Terry Neal: Thank you for your message. The conventional wisdom is that Kerry won the three debates, although there's plenty of differing opinions on that. I consider the second debate a draw, so I'd score it 2-0-1.
In any case, Democrats are saying no one has ever lost three debates and gone on to win the election.
I think many Republicans would like to have seen Bush do a better job overall, but believe he improved enough after the first debate that he at least his own. They also believe that most people at this point know the president is not the most verbally tactile person in the world, and won't hold it against him that he didn't out debate John Kerry.


Stamford, Conn.: will it be particularly damaging for Bush to say he met with the Congressional Black Congress, even though it was only because they showed up and refused to leave until Bush met with them, or is Bush's prospects with minority voters been so diminished that he really can't do much more damage to his campaign?

Terry Neal: Thank you for your question.
Things like this can effect the way people see a candidate. And it could be somewhat problematic--not because it will effect how blacks will vote, but because it could impact the perception of moderate, swing voters about a candidate.
In other words, Bush doesn't have to fear losing any more of the black vote. He only received about 9 percent--the lowest percentage in decades--in 2000 and most people expect more of the same this year.
The bigger risk is that it turns off some moderate, swing voters who want to think of themselves as broad-minded on racial issues.
But I have to say, I doubt this year, with voter concerns so high over things like terrorism, war and job losses, that this will the top concern for too many people.


San Francisco, Calif.: I am an openly gay woman who just took down my Kerry-Edwards sign. I felt Kerry's comment last night was sleazy. Each gay person should be allowed to live their life as publically and/or privately as they wish. Within the last hour, I heard Elizabeth Edwards speak how about the Cheney's shame over having a gay daughter. Who is she to say that? Kerry-Edwards need to clean this up and quickly apologize.

Terry Neal:
Thanks for your note. I have received some emails from people saying similar things. Kerry's mention did seem sort of gratuitously thrown in there last night--and I said that right after the debate on CNN Headline News.
On the other hand, Cheney brought up his daughter's sexuality himself, without prompting, at a live, televised campaign event in August. (See the link provided)
Some people might argue that Cheney can't selectively use his daughter's sexuality for politically purposes. Once he puts it out there, it's in the public discourse.
People can decide for themselves what to think. I'm just saying there are two sides to the issue.

washingtonpost.com: Cheney Sees Gay Marriage as State Issue (Post, Aug. 25)


Washington, D.C.: I saw a stat that said 82 percent of Democrats thought Kerry won the debate and 71 percent of Republicans thought Bush won the debate.

Don't these stats make it clear that any judging of "who won the debate" is filtered by pre-debate opinions about the debaters?

Terry Neal: I'm not sure it does. I saw that poll, and I don't recall what it said about independents, who are about a third of the electorate.
But I do know that a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll that talked to R's, D's and I's, found that 52 percent thought Kerry won, compared to 39 percent who thought Bush won.
In a CBS poll of "uncommitted" voters, Kerry was up 39-25 percent over Bush with 36 percent calling it a tie.
Better news for the president in the ABC poll, which had 42 percent calling it for Kerry vs. 41 percent for Bush with 14 percent calling it a tie.
On your second question, I think there's no question that perceptions are influenced by the after-debate yackfests.
Remember in the instant polls right after the first debate (and don't quote me on the exact numbers), a little more than 50 percent thought Kerry had won vs. about 39 percent who thought Bush did. A day or two later, it was like 61-19 percent in Kerry's favor.
That explains why both sides spin so furiously after the debates. The yackfests create their own reality and help shape public opinion as much as they reflect it.


Vienna, Va.: Everybody keeps harping on the Congressional Black Caucus statement, but Kerry also said that Bush had never met with any civil rights organizations.

That is clearly not true, unless the Urban League is no longer considered a civil rights organization.

And besides, is it fair to castigate Bush for not meeting with the NAACP after that group ran TV ads in 2000 linking Bush to the dragging death of Mr. Byrd in Texas? That was a revoltingly offensive ad, and yet the media says it's Bush's fault for not meeting with the NAACP. What gives?

Terry Neal: Well, to start from your last question and go back, when did "the media" say it was Bush's fault for not meeting with the NAACP. My recollection was that it was Kerry who said that. I don't doubt that there have been some editorials and talking heads that have chastised him for that, but I'm also there have been others in the media who have defended him, just as you have. There is no one monolithic media. If that were the case, Rush Limbaugh and Dan Rather would be joining hands and singing Kumbaya ever day.
Second of all, you are right. Bush did meet with the Urban League and Kerry probably would have been better off not using the broad brush accusation that Bush had never met with any civil rights organizations.
As to whether he should have met with the NAACP, everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. I think however, that you might be accused of the same sort of broad overreach when you accuse the NAACP of "linking" Bush to the death of the Byrd.


Arlington, Va.: Do you feel that the President performed his best in these debates? Many times I got the impression that he wasn't really as engaged as he was during the Gore debates.

Terry Neal: I'm not sure whether it was that he was not as "engaged" as he was in the 2000 debates, but I think you're basically right. He didn't seem quite as sharp and focused.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I've seen polls for many battleground states, but I haven't seen any recently for West Virginia and New Hampshire. Have you seen any recent polls for those states?

Terry Neal: The latest polls I've seen from New Hampshire have it a virtual tie, all within the margin of error. For instance, the nonpartisan American Research Group put it at 47-47 about a week and a half ago.
The latest poll I've seen out of WVa.--also by ARG--is a little dated, having been taken one month ago. But it had it tied as well, 46-46.


Washington, D.C.: It's been suggested that in such a tight race, whoever is down a couple of points on Election Day actually has an advantage, because it will encourage more people to vote, instead of being complacent and staying home.

So if you were running a campaign, would you rather have your guy up by a couple of points, and hope that people are swayed by his apparent popularity, or down, getting more of your voters out to the polls?

Terry Neal: Hmmm. That's a good question. I'm not sure I would agree with that, though. The flip side of it is, that Americans like a winner. And if a candidate is down in the polls, even a couple points, it might send a signal to some voters not to waste a vote on a loser.
Either way, I don't think this is significant phenomenon that campaign advisers sit around obsessing about.


Columbia, Md.: I think the most interesting questions of the night where those dealing with abortion, the Roe v. Wade question in particular. I praise both candidates for finally make their positions clear on the issue. Although Bush did reframe the Roe v. Wade question into a question about having a "litmus test" for Supreme Court judges (clearly not the intent of the original question), he made it again obvious which side of the line he stands. Kerry, in the past, has hesitated about announcing his position. In your opinion, did his public pro-choice acknowledgement hurt him or help him last night.?

Terry Neal: Very good question. But I would take issue with your premise to some extent.
Kerry was very clear last night that he would have a litmus test for judges. He said he would not nominate judges who would overturn a woman's right to chose.
Bush is still playing a game of semantics, though--albeit one with pretty clear code words. Bush said he would not have a litmus test, but would nominate judges would strictly interpret the constitution. Bush knows full well that people who oppose abortion interpret this to mean that he will not nominate judges who believe that women have a constitutional right to abortion.
Some people have criticized Kerry for suggesting that he is both personally opposed to abortion while asserting that his personal beliefs on this very personal matter should not trump an individual woman's right to chose. Some people see that as a contradiction. Some people don't.
Bush on the other hand is clear about his personal opposition to abortion and his belief that it should be illegal. But he's purposefully cagey on the litmus test question and for what appear to be obviously political reasons. The political risk of firing up an entire segment of voters by clearly stating that he would seek to overturn Roe vs. Wade is not worth the benefit he'd receive from appeasing voters who are already on his side and are going to vote for him anyway?
So to some extent, I believe both of these candidates have a problem on abortion.
On the other hand, this has been a tough issue for every presidential candidate in the last few decades. That's just the way it is on this issue.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Based on your column yesterday on voter registration, do you think that it's possible that we could be in for a surprise on election day? If new voters go to the polls, is it possible that the election day numbers will throw off pre-election polls?

washingtonpost.com: What Poll and Registration Numbers Don't Reveal (Post, Oct. 13)

Terry Neal: Thank you for your question. I discussed this subject in my column yesterday. Here's the gist of it: This election is all about George W. Bush. He is a love him or hate him kind of guy. But I believe in politics, hate is a stronger motivator than love. There is a lot of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that Democrats are registering new voters at a far faster pace than Republicans are. In any other year, that might not make any difference. Registering to vote and actually voting are two different things.
But this year, after traveling to several battleground states and talking to lots of voters, my sense is that there is an unusual amount of passion on the left this year. And I think many of these new potential Democratic voters who have just registered for the first time this year are not being counted in the polls.
This is NOT a prediction that Bush will lose. But I do believe that Bush needs to get back to his September poll numbers, where he was up consistently 5-7 points over Kerry, to feel fairly certain of his reelection next month. Right now, Bush is below 50 percent in both his approval rating and his head-to-head match up with Kerry in almost every poll. That is never a good thing for any incumbent, of either party, in any year. But that historical precedence could combine with a 2004-specific dynamic to create a troubling atmosphere for the president come Nov. 2.
Therefore it is crucial that the president run the most effective, powerful campaign he possibly can the next three weeks. And there's still plenty of time for anything to happen between now and then.


Terry Neal: OK folks, my time is up and I've got to run. It's been great. Let's do it again next week!



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