TOPICS > Politics

Presidential Debates

September 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And joining us to set the stage for this important week in the campaign, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times.

Adam, is it just my imagination or has everything gotten very fast and very furious all of a sudden?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: No, I don’t think it’s your imagination at all. I think things have gotten very, very engaged. It’s not only that it’s gotten engaged, Gwen; they’ve gotten engaged over issues. I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve been writing and talking about President Bush and the National Guard and John Kerry and the swift boats and all that, and about minimizing the importance of that.

You’ve seen over the past week and a half or so the candidates really talking about two main topics. One, the way the president has been prosecuting the war in Iraq and whatever plans he has for peace in Iraq. And two, the extent to which either candidate can protect the nation from a future terrorist attack.

GWEN IFILL: So sum up for us in short what the punches and the counter-punches are.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: The punches and the counter- punches are, from Bush to Kerry, it’s to keep it short, “flip- flop, flip-flop.” For Kerry, it’s after some difficulty in perhaps expressing some of the nuances of his opinions, saying that the president… he did not agree with president’s decision to go into war when he went into war, that it’s resulted in leaving us in a position now where we are, according to Kerry, isolated on the international stage, sort of enmeshed in this war where there’s no plan to get out, enmeshed in a war with the justification that the president offered was not borne out in terms of weapons of mass destruction.

What Bush and some of his allies have been saying is that Kerry’s attacks, beyond the flip- flopping argument, that Kerry’s attacks effectively demoralize American troops in the field, cuts us off from our allies and suggests, as I think the president will probably try to argue on Thursday night, that Sen. Kerry does not have the backbone to stand up to a foreign crisis.

GWEN IFILL: So each man is trying to redefine each other, according to their own…

ADAM NAGOURNEY: That’s correct. And I think a lot of what’s going on here is they really are laying the groundwork for what this debate… remember this debate on Thursday is going to be about foreign policy and national security, so they’re really trying to lay the groundwork down for that. And on terrorism, it’s been a little bit more… this has been a sort of constant theme of this whole campaign, but it’s gotten really intense recently, which is the Democrats… excuse me, Republicans are basically saying that the nation will be more prone to another attack by Al-Qaida if John Kerry is elected president. Vice President Cheney has come pretty close to saying that right out.

So that’s the subtext of what’s going on with that. And whereas Kerry with his speech in… I’m losing track of cities, New York, I think, laid out… made the argument that the decision by President Bush to invade Iraq and neglect Afghanistan and Al-Qaida has, in fact, made us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks at home. There’s a lot to talk about on Thursday night.

GWEN IFILL: While these candidates ramp up for this debate and prepare for it and try to anticipate each other’s moves and their fates and all the stuff they do pre-debates, whatever happened, as they all talk about Iraq and national security and all these things, whatever happened to domestic policy?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: It’s still out there. There’s some Democrats who will say to you, “well, you know, Kerry will deal with foreign policy in this first issue, and the next two debates are supposed to be either about entirely domestic policy or a combination of the two so it will come back again.” I mean, the fact of the matter is that this campaign has from the very beginning revolved around Iraq. And even though I think Democrats always thought or wanted or expected it to come back to domestic policy, what’s changed now is “a,” the situation on the ground. I mean, it’s clearly an urgent issue.

And, “b,” I think Kerry genuinely sees in this issue an opportunity to make a case against President Bush. Before the whole argument of the Kerry campaign was “I will prove that I can be Kerry; I will prove that I can hold my own on national security and on Iraq and then move on to the domestic issues.” Now it’s more. Now he’s saying that there’s something wrong with his policy and he thinks he can win the election or certainly make a lot of… a lot of progress on it.

GWEN IFILL: And this is playing out obviously not only in these speeches we’ve heard these candidates saying, but there’s some very tough ads that we’re seeing on the air now…


GWEN IFILL: …This last week. Are they…. any way to measure whether they’re having the impact that’s desired?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: You know what? A couple of points. The polling has been so weird this year, it’s sort of hard to tell. Second of all, I’ve wondered for a long time whether there’s just so much information and so many ads and so much media coming at voters that they don’t have the impact that they once had. And third of all, we literally have ads this week which include images of Osama bin Laden, images of Saddam Hussein, images of Mohammed Atta, images war on the streets of Iraq. I mean, at some point you have to figure that people are going to be like, you know, “hey, let’s, you know, let’s see what’s on television here,” you know? Tune it out.

GWEN IFILL: So Adam, on Thursday night, who has got the most pressure on him to perform well?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Gwen, I think both sides would actually say that Sen. Kerry has the most pressure on him. I don’t think there’s any dispute about that from Democrats. First of all, even though the polls have been a little bit back and forth, there’s a consensus among Democrats and Republicans that President Bush is probably 5 percentage points ahead of Sen. Kerry.

GWEN IFILL: In spite of all the polls we’ve seen back and forth.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah. I mean, at some point, we could talk about how squirrelly polls have been this year. But I think it’s fair to say that’s what going on. Second of all, more significant I think what’s very clear about this election is that the underlying dynamics from the beginning have been against President Bush in terms of number of people who think the country is going in the wrong direction, the number of people who have concern about the president’s Iraq policy and his economic policy, and the people who just want change.

But the problem is that Sen. Kerry has to make a case, I think, to the American public and I don’t think he’s done it yet, as to why voters would want to fire effectively fire a sitting president from office in the middle of a war. And he hasn’t done it yet. He hasn’t made an affirmative case to people that they would want him as a president. And I think, you know, the pressure is on him at this first debate and to a lesser extent at the following two debates to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, we’ll be reading all about in your coverage, in the New York Times. Thank you, Adam Nagourney.