Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004/ 21 Tishrei, 5765

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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How to eliminate the heebie-jeebies | Published October 5, 2004 Suddenly the Republicans are a little nervous, and if George W. Bush is not nervous, too, the Republicans are only wise to indulge their heebie-jeebies.

Some of the president's friends are spending too much time studying the entrails of the polls, trying to convince themselves that the polls aren't really all that bad, that after all George W. did better than the media spinmeisters said he did, and besides, John Kerry is a jerk.

Some of that may be true, but it really is later than the president thinks. His own spinners did the best they could over the weekend, and it's certainly arguable that on substance the president won. Nobody but Monsieur Kerry wants to submit the defense of America to a "global test" administered by the likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. Submitting the liberty of American soldiers to the jurisdiction of an international criminal court in Switzerland and its unelected Chinese and French judges, as Monsieur Kerry (who was educated in Switzerland) wants to do, is the stuff of nightmares. But style is what substance is made of now, when television viewers imagine that "reality shows" are actually about reality. Presidential candidates are measured by the standards of television performers. Last Thursday night the president was all but voted off the island.

His real friends will tell him now, while there's time to do something about it, that his television performance was not very good. A shrewd Democratic officeholder in one of the battleground states, a barnburner of a campaigner who won several statewide races and became disillusioned with his party years ago, puts it this way: "The Bushes are hard to help. The president conducted himself like 'Ned in the primer.' Al Gore four years ago was a pro compared to the president this time. Either he is a total dumbass or he didn't bother to prepare. The people who made him deserve better than that. A politician builds a speech on the campaign trail. He learns the cliches that move people. He didn't use a single one. He didn't even react. But he drank a gallon of water; Nixon sweated in 1960. Neither looked presidential. Bush didn't give his friends a single talking point they could quote with pride the next morning. On the record, George W. Bush deserves re-election. But like his dad, he can give it away."

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The Bush campaign is not a collection of "dumbasses," and the president's wise men (and Karen Hughes) are studying the tape of the debate with the intensity of Super Bowl coaches studying game film with their quarterbacks. They understand the comparison between father and son. The first President Bush has felt the sting of criticism once more for his sin of glancing at his watch in the final debate with Bill Clinton in 1992. Like most of the rest of us that night, he was bored, and no doubt felt put-upon by having to indulge a governor who was trying to live down to all the rascally redneck cliches of his state, with the goofy Ross Perot thrown in for good measure. He learned the hard way the penalty for underestimating Bill Clinton.

George W. has put himself in similar peril. A week ago the Bush campaign was giddy with expectation that their man would put the race away with a boffo performance in the first debate. Now it's the Democrats who are smoking euphoria. The president can take solace that the new poll numbers are no worse than they are. Newsweek and Gallup show the race even, and if accurate demonstrate mostly how volatile the electorate is this year. More likely, the new polls are only correcting the polls of a fortnight ago that showed the president with a double-digit lead. A new Washington Post/ABC poll out last night shows the president up five points. The nightly Rasmussen tracking poll, more reliable in some ways than the others, has shown the president with a consistent two- to three-point lead every morning for the last two weeks. That's exactly where the Rasmussen tracking numbers are this morning as well.

George W.'s strengths are still undiluted. He is still regarded in all the polls as the stronger leader, the president who stands tall to protect American security, sovereignty and safety. A reading of the transcript reveals Monsieur Kerry in all his empty weaknesses. Anyone who listened to the debate on the radio would have judged George W. the clear winner. But television is, alas, the measure of the modern candidate. The president must work hard this week to prepare, but no more talk about how hard he has to work. (We all have to work hard, and we can't close the street in front of the house and we don't get motorcades to the airport.) No more reliance on the ability to wing it. Karl Rove should give him two 10-milligram Ambiens Thursday night to make sure he gets a good night's sleep. And he has to wipe that smirk off his face.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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