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Ten Toughest Things

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Ten toughest things to do in presidential politics


Mon Sep 27, 8:05 AM ET


By Susan Page, USA TODAY


After the first presidential debate on Thursday, neither candidate will have a winner's garland placed atop his head or a medal draped around his neck. But considering the rigors of the evening, maybe he should.



A presidential debate is to politics what the high dive is to sports: a very difficult thing to execute without error. The debates - televised to a bigger audience than is likely to view the victor's inaugural address in January - have tripped up even such seasoned candidates as Ronald Reagan (news - web sites) in 1984 and Al Gore (news - web sites) in 2000.



Academics and editorial writers decry the tendency to view the election as a sports competition instead of, say, a deliberation on serious issues and the direction of the country.



But it is hard to deny the parallels between politics and sports, which account for the references to the horse race, the knockout punch and the campaign as a marathon until its sprint to the finish.



And the presidential contest is, of course, the Olympics of political competitions.



In that spirit, USA TODAY talked to candidates, strategists, pollsters, analysts and scholars to develop an admittedly subjective list of the 10 toughest things to do in national politics - a sort of election decathlon.



These challenges - from explaining what you really meant to handling an October surprise - have sent some candidates to the Oval Office, others to oblivion.



Participating in a presidential debate, by the way, came in fourth.



Here's our countdown:



No. 10: 'What I meant to say'



Howard Dean (news - web sites)'s defiant scream to a caucus night crowd in Iowa in January, played over and over on cable TV, helped sink the former Vermont governor's bid for the Democratic nomination.



John Kerry (news - web sites)'s explanation of his vote against a spending bill for Iraq (news - web sites) and Afghanistan (news - web sites) - "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" - was immortalized in a Bush ad just hours later.



The scrutiny of a presidential candidate is unforgiving. Most damaging is when a verbal slip or unguarded moment reinforces a negative image the candidate is fighting - Republican attacks on Kerry's alleged flip-flopping on Iraq and other issues, for instance.



President Bush (news - web sites)'s malapropisms, which occur often enough to be collected into anthologies, are cited by critics who question his mental acuity. Consider his call at a stop in Poplar Bluff, Mo., this month for a crackdown on frivolous lawsuits: "Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."



No. 9: Turning your problem into a plus



Critics say Bush is stubborn, unwilling to admit when he's made a mistake. His campaign has sought to recast that stubbornness as strength - strong enough to stand up to terrorists, for instance. Bush has "a certain swagger," he acknowledged without apology in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, "which in Texas is called 'walking.' "



He's not the first contender to try to transform a potential vulnerability into an asset.




A string of candidates - Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton (news - web sites) - sought to make their relative inexperience in Washington seem like a good thing to voters. The incumbent's experience just meant he was responsible for the mess the challengers were promising to clean up, they said.


Arizona Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record) might be faulted for contrariness that has strained his relations with fellow Republicans; instead, he's praised for his prickly independence.


No. 8: Turning a foe's plus into his problem


Even more difficult is converting your opponent's asset into a liability. Many Democrats figured that Kerry would be their party's most electable nominee in part because of his military service.


Pictures of him in Vietnam and having the Bronze Star being pinned to his crisp, white Navy uniform are featured in his ads and on his Web site.


But a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched ads in August questioning Kerry's account of his service in Vietnam and criticizing his anti-war activities when he got home. The dispute muddied the advantage Kerry once held. After the Democratic convention, four in 10 voters said his Vietnam service made them more likely to vote for him; that number was cut in half by the end of the Republican convention.


Bush's father benefited from a similar turnabout in the 1988 election. Democrat Michael Dukakis campaigned on the "Massachusetts Miracle" - his record as governor of helping bring economic prosperity to the Bay State.


By Election Day, Bush ads deriding pollution in Boston Harbor, and an independent group's ads savaging the state's parole system, helped the elder Bush send Dukakis home to Boston.


No. 7: Changing the subject, successfully


In the spring, White House aides complained that the president was delivering speeches on health care and education only to have reporters focus instead on the sentence or two he would say about Iraq. After the Republican convention this month, Kerry's campaign declared he would focus on the economy.


News coverage still centered on Iraq. Bowing to reality, Kerry has been blasting Bush's actions on the war and terrorism for the past few weeks - and getting headlines. "You have to have something profound to say about it because it's clearly compelling the attention of the American people," says Mike McCurry, a Kerry adviser and veteran Democratic strategist.


Talking seriously about any issue can be difficult, especially when it involves hard choices. Republicans label Kerry's health care plan "nationalized medicine;" Democrats attack Bush's Social Security (news - web sites) plan as dangerous for seniors.


And trying to switch topics from process to policy becomes even harder as Election Day gets closer.


Then, "all the questions to the presidential candidates are strategy, process, tactics, polling," says Stuart Rothenberg of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. " 'Why are you behind, and what are you going to do to get ahead?' "


No. 6: Raising the second round of money


For a fledgling presidential contender, raising the first round of money often isn't so hard. Relatives and neighbors, college roommates and law partners are willing to pitch in. But after that, candidates must reach donors who aren't on their Christmas card list. Those contributors want assurances that the candidacy is serious. "People want to see progress" before they'll write a check, says Charlie Cook, editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "They want to see that you've got a chance."


"The first money you could call 'love money,' " says Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (news - web sites), a veteran of two presidential bids, "and the second money I'd call 'blood money,' because you bleed so much trying to raise it." Bush's fundraising edge gave him a big advantage over Alexander and other GOP contenders in 2000.


"The money, more than anything else, made it difficult for anybody else to be seriously considered," Alexander says.


In this election, even Kerry had to take out a $6.4 million mortgage on his Beacon Hill town house to keep his campaign afloat in December. (The gamble paid off: He got the money back from his campaign just before he accepted the Democratic nomination in July.)


No. 5: Getting non-voters to the polls


The 2000 election was a case study in the importance of turnout. Florida and the election were called by 537 votes; four other states were decided by less than one-half of 1% of the votes cast. This time, political parties and advocacy groups have embarked on unprecedented get-out-the-vote operations. They are combining the door-to-door focus of a Tammany Hall machine with PalmPilot technology.


The goal is to turn out not only reliable supporters but also those who haven't voted in the past. For Democrats, prime targets include single women and young people; for Republicans, evangelical Christians and rural residents.


But delivering new voters to the polls isn't easy. Turnout has generally fallen since 1960, when it peaked at 65%. Its nadir was in 1996, at 51%. "The younger generations are disinterested in politics, and the older generations have become more alienated," says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.


The task involves not only identifying prospects and persuading them to register but also following up, often more than once. Some need a ride to a polling place - not to mention a convincing reason it's worth their time and trouble to go.


No. 4: Participating in a presidential debate


The only moment in 1984 when President Reagan's re-election seemed in peril was after his first debate with challenger Walter Mondale. "The Great Communicator" had seemed tired and distracted. Mondale's struggling campaign sensed an opening.


No event during a competitive election is as crucial, or as taxing, as the debates. "They're momentous," says Alan Schroeder of Northeastern University, author of Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV. "They only happen every four years. It's live television. It's the only thing in the campaign that can't be totally pre-scripted, and it's a chance for people to see the candidates under pressure and judge them."


Even experienced contenders can make puzzling misstatements during presidential debates; witness President Ford's insistence in 1976 that Eastern Europe wasn't under Soviet domination.


Sometimes candidates are so determined to project a chosen characteristic that they seem to lose their center. In 2000, Al Gore came under fire after the first debate for being scarily aggressive; in the second, he was critiqued for being perplexingly passive.


In 1984, by the way, Reagan closed the door on Democrats' brief hope for a Mondale surge at their second and final debate. Reagan defused concerns about his age, 73, with a quip that he wasn't going "to exploit my opponent's youth and inexperience." (Which was a pretty good example of No. 9 on this list: Turning your problem into a plus.)


No. 3: Surviving a firestorm


Gary Hart was the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when he spent a weekend with model Donna Rice. Reporters for The Miami Herald, who had staked out his Washington town house on a tip, wrote a story about it that Sunday. By Wednesday, a poll in New Hampshire showed the former Colorado senator had lost half his support in the state with the first primary. On Friday, he was gone from the race.


But there are also survivors. In 1992, Clinton was battered in the weeks before the New Hampshire primary with allegations that he had dodged the draft and been unfaithful to his wife. Unlike Hart, however, Clinton refused to fold. He denied wrongdoing, attacked his critics and kept campaigning. His wife, Hillary, was by his side.


"There's a moment of truth for a candidate" when he decides if the race is worth the pain, McCurry says. His first boss was New Jersey Sen. Harrison Williams, who resigned in 1982 after being convicted of bribery and conspiracy.


Finishing second in New Hampshire, Clinton dubbed himself "the Comeback Kid" and was on his way to two terms in the White House. Six years later, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he used similar tactics to survive impeachment.


No. 2: Making a second impression


Your mother was right: You never have a second chance to make a first impression.


When the elder George Bush (news - web sites) picked his running mate, the first picture many voters saw of Dan Quayle (news - web sites) was him bounding toward Bush on a dock in New Orleans, looking as young and eager as a pup. A few days later, he was likened to another animal - a deer caught in headlights - when he was grilled by reporters about how he got into the Indiana National Guard during Vietnam.


Even after four years as vice president, Quayle never lost the reputation as a lightweight that he gained in those few days.


Only the most skilled politicians have succeeded in revising voters' early views of them. An obscure Arkansas governor got merciless reviews after a long-winded speech nominating Dukakis in 1988; the biggest applause line came when he said, "In conclusion " Four years and a lot of campaigning later, Clinton was back at the Democratic convention as its nominee and with a reputation as an effective speaker.


This year, as soon as Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee, the Bush campaign spent a quick $20 million on TV ads in March alone, before most independent-minded voters knew much about him, to define him as an ultra-liberal senator with a record of waffling on everything from education reform to Iraq.


Kerry aired his own early ads, describing himself as "a husband and father, a hunter, hockey player, tough prosecutor, advocate for kids, a man of faith, a combat veteran who earned three Purple Hearts." But he is still fighting the image of a flip-flopper that the Bush campaign first painted for him in March.


No. 1: Handling an October surprise


The "October surprise" has taken on mythic proportions since Republicans in 1980 feared that President Carter would somehow, just before a tough election, manage to win release of the American hostages being held in Iran. (He didn't, and he lost.)


In 1992, the Iran-contra special prosecutor indicted former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger on the Friday before the election and implied that the first President Bush knew more about the scandal than he had acknowledged. (Bush lost the election but before leaving office issued a Christmas Eve pardon for Weinberger.)


Speculation about a late-breaking surprise can consume campaigns even when nothing ends up happening. When it does happen, "it can throw both the candidate and his staff off their game," says Gary Bauer (news - web sites), who sought the Republican nomination in 2000. His plan to use Louisiana's early caucuses to get attention crashed when the state canceled them.


This time, conspiracy-minded Democrats speculate that Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) might be captured just in time to affect the course of the election. Some Republicans worry that a meltdown in Iraq could transform public opinion against the war there the way the Tet offensive turned the public's view of Vietnam in 1968.


What about a terrorist attack on U.S. soil? "It's very hard to predict what direction that would go," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who advises the Bush campaign. An attack that U.S. officials should have been able to avert could hurt Bush, he says, but otherwise voters probably would "rally 'round the flag, rally 'round the troops and rally 'round the president."


With a last-minute surprise, there's little time to conduct a poll, convene a focus group or cut an ad. It's all instinct and response. "Why is the last 30 seconds of a football game so important?" Rothenberg asks. "Because the whole game is packed into a very short period, a period where things are out of control. And politicians hate to be out of control."

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