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September 17, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: In our Briefing and Opinion segment each week, we'll pick a major story or issue, assign reports to bring you a briefing from the field on the basic facts and background, and then we'll tell you what we think about it.

For our first program, with about six weeks to go before the election, we decided to do some of the reporting from the field ourselves. Dan and I were joined by editorial page writers Jason Riley and Kim Strassel. The public opinion polls agree that the election is close, with an unusually small number of undecided voters. So what's happening in the 16 swing states you see here, is especially crucial. These states total 172 electoral votes, and neither candidate can win without adding a big chunk of them to the vote he figures to win easily.

We focused on Pennsylvania, and especially the Lehigh Valley, where voters have an almost perfect record over the past 20 years of picking the winners. They chose President Reagan twice, than President Bush, then President Clinton twice. They voted narrowly for Al Gore, as the nation did in the popular vote.

PETER LEFFLER: The Lehigh Valley is a microcosm of the state. Up until about a generation ago it was heavily blue collar. It still is in a sense that people could and did follow their father and grandfather into Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks, as everybody probably knows from the Billy Joel Song, that's changed.

In the 90's here there was a boom, part of the high tech wave. Unfortunately that has collapsed. And so right now, we're kind of in between. There's no boom going on here right now.

CHRIS BORICK, INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC OPINION, MUHLENBERG COLLEGE: It's a place where no single party dominates, a place that you could say truly has a balanced political competition between Republicans and Democrats.

PAUL GIGOT: And going with the winner?

CHRIS BORICK: It has a great record of going with the winner, a fairly good bell-weather for American presidential politics?

PAUL GIGOT: So what are the dominant issues now as we go into the last 50 days of this election?

CHRIS BORICK: Three issues have dominated these discussions in all our polls and all our focus groups.

CHRIS BORICK: It's the economy. It's terrorism. And it's the war in Iraq.

PAUL GIGOT: Talk to us about the impact of the war here.

PAUL LEFFLER: We have our couple of guard units in the Lehigh Valley.


PAUL LEFFLER: People here have served.

KIM STRASSEL: Do your friends, neighbors now that there's a war going on, does it sort of change the way they deal with you?


KIM STRASSEL Does it come up any more,the subject?


PAUL LEFFLER: Some of our folks in fact were at the prison, in Iraq, where the abuses, alleged abuses went on. Here in the Valley it's playing like anywhere else. It's the big wild card.

PAUL GIGOT: What's on the minds of voters as they consider President Bush versus Senator Kerry?

WOMAN OF TWO: I would think terrorism.

MAN ON STREET: The war as it stands has been a big mistake.

PAUL GIGOT: Is the war on terror and the perception of a strong commander-in-chief, the best issue President Bush has?

CHRIS BORICK: It's a very powerful issue. When you compare Senator Kerry to George Bush and how Pennsylvanians view them in terms of fighting terrorism, it's no question that the President drives more support.

PAUL GIGOT: Who's going to decide this election in the Lehigh Valley? Are the people who are genuinely undecided are going to make up their mind at the last few days? Or are these people who are right now committed but will break away from either one of the candidates?

CHRIS BORICK: My gut instinct is it's going to be those undecideds.


JASON RILEY: What are the big issues for you two this election year?

BRIAN GOTWALD: Prescription medicine, we're getting older. Health care. Health care.

MRS. GOTWALD: You can't keep up with it.

BRIAN GOTWALD: Both candidates ought to spend more time helping senior citizens.

LABORER: I'm a union laborer, okay. It's jobs. There's 400 laborers in my local that's off. A couple hundred carpenters, pipefitters, everybody. There's just no big job.

KIM STRASSEL: Is national security and the war the main thing you vote on this time?

LADY ON LINE: It's one of the things. Nobody wants to have to send anybody to war. I have two sons that possibly could go any time too.

KIM STRASSEL: What will make you decide, and when?

LADY ON LINE: I really don't know.

PAUL GIGOT: The President tried to make the Iraq War an integral part of the war on terror. Has he been successful in making that link with voters here?

CHRIS BORICK: No. And in fact, this has been one of the key weaknesses I think for the President in Pennsylvania and I think an opportunity for Senator Kerry. If he could disentangle terrorism and Iraq. The war in Iraq, although rebounding slightly, is still not very popular in Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley.


PAUL GIGOT: Kerry was here, right?

OWNER: Yes he was. He stopped in here for breakfast.

PAUL GIGOT: What happened to the Kerry posters?

WAITRESS: There's pictures over there.

OWNER: All the pictures are over there.

PAUL GIGOT: If Iraq is the biggest issue, what's going to turn it for you for either for President Bush or Senator Kerry??

PATRON: I'm looking to see an end to it. The final thing. Just end it. We don't want another Vietnam.


PAUL GIGOT: Are you decided or undecided yet?

PATRON: Undecided yet.

PAUL GIGOT: Undecided. Who'd you vote for last time?


PAUL GIGOT: You voted for Bush. Okay. Is there an important issue for you, is there one overriding issue?

PATRON: The health care issue.

PAUL GIGOT: The health care issue.

PAUL GIGOT: You haven't mentioned health care. It's not a top three issue?

CHRIS BORICK: It's not a top three. But it's knocking on the door.

PAUL GIGOT: So Bush has the lead and momentum. But Iraq is a big wild card?

CHRIS BORICK: Very much so. I'd say that, you know, it's a statistically dead heat. Bush has the momentum right now. But as many people have said, the issue that might determine this election has yet to happen. And I think people around the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania are very much in that, in that wait and see pattern.

PAUL GIGOT?: Kim, George Bush has been the incumbent now for three and a half years, which by definition means if you're undecided, you're undecided about his tenure. That suggests an opening for John Kerry. What did you hear from voters about what they're looking to hear from John Kerry to go with him?

KIM STRASSEL: Yeah, I think John Kerry does have an opportunity, if only he can bring this debate back to the domestic issue. And that's a big if. Most of the people I talked to down there, if they'd made up their minds they were people who were making it up on national security. They'd already decided. They liked the war, they didn't like the war, they liked Bush's leadership, they didn't like it.

The people who were undecided were ones who wanted to hear a lot more from the candidates about domestic issues. And in particular, they were talking about health care costs, they were talking about school costs. Now this is stuff that John Kerry did bring up in his campaign in the beginning. He talked a lot about a middle class squeeze. Can people have enough money to make everything go around?

The question is, having focused so much on the war issue up until now, can he change that debate back to the domestic question.

PAUL GIGOT: Interesting dilemma, Jason. I mean, if you want to go domestic in an election where a commander in chief is going to be one of the central issues, that's a tough thing for Senator Kerry. What did you hear about from your voters?

JASON RILEY: Well, I would add to what Kim said that Kerry's got to get a message out, period, whether it be on domestic issues or foreign policy. The media keeps talking about how nuanced his positions are. I think the voters are looking for clarity. And I think it's interesting that as you mentioned, Bush from now until the election has been president -- from now until the election, he can talk about what he's done, he can show voters his accomplishments. Kerry has the challenge of convincing the American people that they should switch presidents, that they should fire the guy we have now and elect him. He has to tell people in a very clear way where he wants to take the country. And I think the polls reflect that he's been unable to do that. That his position is so suffocated and nuanced that people don't know where he wants to go. So we end up with this sort of paradox, where we have this supposedly inarticulate president who everyone understands completely, and a hyper-articulate challenger that nobody can figure out.

PAUL GIGOT: I was really struck by the big billboards, the Bush-Cheney billboards. They were red, white and blue, and they say, "Defending our Nation," or "A Secure America." You may not agree with that, but that's a pretty clear message.

Dan, any surprises you've found?

DAN HENNINGER: Not really. The Friday night we were there, John Kerry came to town, as you recall, for a big rally at the Allentown Fairgrounds. And what was the big message he put across during that speech? That he supported the expiring ban on assault weapons. Now you'd say, this is kind of a weird thing to bring up, right? But this is not just some guy running for president. He's running as the candidate of the Democratic party.

The next day I was up at the Nazareth Speedway, and ran into three guys who said the second biggest issue for them in this campaign is guns. So clearly John Kerry is going for Democratic turnout.

PAUL GIGOT: Thanks, Dan. We're going to have to leave it at that. We'll be following the voters of the Lehigh Valley to see if we spot changes as election day gets closer. Next subject.