Political correspondents discuss 2004 election

A group of political correspondents said the 2004 presidential election would be one of the closest in history at a panel discussion at the National Press Club Monday night.

The pundits spoke to a crowd of about 200 at an installment of the GW-sponsored Kalb Report, which is named after its moderator, renowned journalist Marvin Kalb.

“It’s going to be a one- or two-point election,” said Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. “Wouldn’t you be surprised if someone won with 55 percent of the vote?”

Panelists said they based their predictions by visiting swing states and talking to residents. Peter Maer, a CBS News White House corespondent, said he expects some Republicans to vote for Sen. John Kerry, the probable Democratic nominee, this November.

“One man told me, ‘I’ve always voted Republican, but this time I’m not. I don’t like being conned, and I’ve been conned about weapons of mass destruction,'” said Maer, referring to the failure to find biological and chemical weapons in Iraq.

Ron Fournier, head White House correspondent for the Associated Press, said voters would focus on the quality of Iraqi war intelligence and an economy that isn’t as strong as it was during President Clinton’s tenure.

He also said voters will be particularly interested in the findings of the September 11 commission and allegations by Richard Clarke, a former White House aide, who said President Bush ignored warnings about the terrorist attacks.

“These allegations cut at the heart of President Bush’s strong suit: the war on terrorism,” he said in an interview after the event. “Anything that undermines that is pretty dangerous.”

The panelists also commented on the Bush administration’s campaign to discredit Clarke’s allegations. In recent weeks, administration officials have appeared in a variety of television interviews to refute Clarke’s claims.

“The amount of time that top presidential aides have spent on this issue … is suggesting they are scared,” Maer said.

The group also rehashed the demise of former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign. Washington Post reporter Dan Balz said Dean overestimated the effect his supporters would have on influencing voters. Dean was originally a front-runner in the race but ultimately failed to win a single primary or caucus during his campaign.

“In Iowa, a campaign staffer walked me through the most elaborate get-out-the-vote campaign I had ever heard,” Balz said. “I left convinced that he had almost everything he needed, until I realized that they were working on the theory that people from outside the state could rally veterans of the process within the state.”

Although Dean had many college-age supporters, his attempts to mobilize youth voters did not translate into primary wins, Maer said.

After Kalb bluntly asked, “Did you in any way blow it?” the group agreed that the media erred in proclaiming Dean as the probable winner of the nomination

“We sensed there were problems (with Dean’s campaign) but we kept saying ‘it was just a caucus, not a primary,’ Page said. “We didn’t believe what we saw with our own eyes.”

Fournier said this mistake occurred because the media gave credit to early polls, but that many voters did not make up their mind about who to vote for until just before election day.

“Dean performed at his worst when he needed to be at his best,” said Fournier, who added that he anticipates a similar situation in the presidential election.

“My guess is that 10 percent of the population will wait until that last weekend to decide,” he said.

This year, CBS and others news organizations are using more restraint when reporting election results, Maer said. In the 2000 presidential election, news agencies reported Democratic candidate Al Gore victorious in Florida but then retracted their announcements and decided that the election was too close to judge.

“We were careful on each primary night,” Maer said. “We held back on some election results to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

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