As we saw in 2000, even if President Bush were to take his slight lead straight into the election next month, it would probably evaporate on election day. The Democrats are whipping the black vote into a frenzy (already hurling charges of "voter supression"), and if they turn out in strong numbers, it's over for Bush (at least as things stand now). And as Joel Rosenberg points out today, if undecided voters were to swing towards Kerry by a 2-1 margin, Bush again loses in a landslide.
With the polls looking as they do, President Bush will need to deliver nothing less than a knockout punch (or at least a TKO) in tonight's debate. Frankly, I don't think he has the ability on his feet to do it? Kerry will come prepared with new weapons in his arsenal--the new job numbers, the Duelfer Report, Paul Bremer's comments from the other day, etc. Kerry has the verbal ability to frame any of those issues in a way that might score points and catch Bush off guard. Will Bush be quick enough on his feet to effectively respond and turn it back on Kerry? Will he be prepared enough to be ready, but not overprepared so that his responses sound canned and unconvincing?
People have said that these debates don't really mean anything. I disagree. Last week's debate seems to have spearheaded a near-reversal in the poll numbers. Undecided voters are swinging toward Kerry in increasing numbers. Bush's lackluster performance last week handed the momentum of this campaign to a candidate who had nearly self-immolated. The president's campaign cannot survive a second consecutive such debacle.
It won't be enough tonight to be "right on substance." It won't be enough to simply repeat over and over again that Kerry is inconsistent. Can Bush take the offensive against Kerry and turn Kerry's attacks into positives on the fly? I have my doubts.
Maybe the President will prove me wrong.