By Ciro Scotti
With all those pleasantly bellicose Republican rubes safely out of town, members of New York's chattering class gathered on Sept. 8 to do what they do best: eat a free lunch and try mightily to sound smart.
The event was a forum entitled "Who will be our next President?" Sponsored by the newsweekly The Week, it featured a panel moderated by Sir Harold Evans, with former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, former Clinton political strategist and Fox News analyst Dick Morris, former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, and Gallup Poll Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport. Phoning in were hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and onetime Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.
State of the Race. The bipartisan consensus at the gathering -- and accepted political wisdom among the New Yorkers (this week) -- was that the Republicans had a successful convention that helped propel George W. Bush ahead of John Kerry. But how far?
Pollster Newport reiterated Gallup's latest finding that Bush has a seven-point lead among likely voters. Morris suggested that his current edge is "substantially" larger. And even Trippi agreed that the Kerry camp is playing catch-up.
But Trippi recalled Kerry's bolt-from-the-blue primary comeback in the Iowa caucuses last January, when the pundits were predicting his demise and Dean looked unstoppable. "The Kerry campaign has two gears -- coast and fight, [and] they really coasted through August. [But] I saw Superman take off his vest in Iowa, and I would never underestimate them," he said.
Only Cuomo took the position that the numbers "don't mean a whole lot."
Talking Points. Newport said that while the country is about evenly divided on the wisdom of the war in Iraq, most voters don't list it as one of their top concerns. On people's minds, he said, are domestic issues.
"This is a campaign between two issues," said Morris, "terror and domestic policy.... The real race boils down to a fight over whether we want a wartime President or a peacetime President." He said Kerry is handicapped in talking about Iraq because whatever he says could alienate either supporters who oppose intervention or those who back the invasion. He said Kerry should stick to talking about issues such as the economy, health care, and the environment.
Ever the eloquent partisan, Cuomo made a strong case that Kerry should strongly confront Bush on both the war on terror and the economy. "[Bush] has no plan to fight terrorism," he said quite proudly.
Turnout. Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker Michael Moore has been predicting that the Nov. 2 election will see an explosion of youthful Kerry voters that the lockstep media and pollsters of the predictable are missing by concentrating on "likely voters." At the Democratic Convention in Boston, he said that based on his travels around the country, "There ain't no 50-50 divide" -- the much ballyhooed GOP-Dem political split in America.
At the forum, Newport suggested that Moore was seeing apparitions in his crystal ball. He said Gallup had uncovered no such impending surge, adding that it's "an urban myth" that if young voters are prodded to the polls, they'll mostly choose Kerry.
Simmons, whose Hip-Hop Action Network is working to turn out voters with events around the country featuring artists such as Beyoncé, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem, echoed Newport's contention that no candidate has a lock on young people.
Negative ads. At one point, the discussion turned to negative political advertising in general and specifically the attacks on Kerry's combat record in Vietnam by what Dukakis called a "phony independent committee" of Swift Boat veterans.
Dukakis said he knew a thing or two about negative ads. He referred to his 1988 race against George H.W. Bush and the bruising Republican ads about Willie Horton. A convicted murderer, Horton was granted a furlough in 1986 under a program approved by then Massachusetts Governor Dukakis. Horton disappeared, and about a year later was arrested in Maryland after beating and torturing a man and raping his girlfriend. "At least Willie Horton happened," Dukakis blurted out.
Of course, none of the pros assessing the state of play knew that on the next day new allegations about Bush's military service -- or lack thereof -- would emerge. What effect, if any, those revelations and allegations of Bush drug usage in a new book by sensationalist Kitty Kelley will have on the race are unknowable. But they serve as warnings that despite the intelligentsia's sense that the President currently has the upper hand, that situation could, well, flip-flop in Kerry's favor at any time.
Scotti is a senior editor for BusinessWeek in New York and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online