Florida — the perfect venue for the
most important event of the 2004 presidential campaign. Tonight at
9 p.m. George W. Bush and John Kerry will face off at the
University of Miami in a foreign policy debate with critical
implications for the outcome of the campaign. This is the first
debate and it will set expectations and perceptions for the
remainder of the campaign. It’s fitting that a campaign that
has had so much to do with what happened four years ago will come
down to another battle in Florida. Traditionally, candidates have
used the days before a debate to ratchet up the expectations for
their rivals, but this week both candidates have come out with
surprising aggression. Bush told an Ohio audience on Monday that
“it’s been a little tough to prepare because (Kerry)
keeps changing positions on the war on the terror” while
Kerry has continued to deride Bush at every possible
opportunity.

Zac Peskowitz

These unorthodox strategies are a nice backdrop to the battle
for Florida. In a somewhat counterintuitive move, Kerry chose to
stake his debate camp in Spring Green, Wis., not the more important
battleground of Florida. Kerry aides lamely stated that the senator
didn’t want to distract from hurricane clean up in Florida
and would do his debate preparation elsewhere. Wisconsin’s 10
electoral votes are important, but Florida is still the big prize
that can swing the election, and tracking polls show that neither
candidate has a legitimate advantage in the state. With that in
mind, here are three issues that the candidates will use to expand
their appeal to critical swing voters.

 

Iraq: This is Kerry’s final opportunity to convince the
voters that he has some sort of coherent position on Iraq. Equally
important, he needs to show that he has a plan more sophisticated
than bringing in additional troops from other nations. His
four-point plan to right the situation in Iraq is astoundingly
simplistic and presents no real contrast with Bush’s
approach. If Kerry has any chance of improving the public’s
perception of his ability to manage Iraq he will need to show that
he has specific alternatives to Bush. In the past several weeks,
Kerry has pivoted and is now attempting to exploit the fear that
Bush’s approach to Iraq has made Americans more susceptible
to terrorist attacks, but he needs to go beyond a criticism of
Bush’s management of foreign policy. Kerry needs to show that
he has the skill and the ideas to resolve the crisis. Which brings
us to our next topic …

 

Realism vs. Liberalism: Far more important than a
candidate’s actual proposals is the worldview that will guide
him throughout his presidency. Bush’s first principles on the
importance of democratization are well known at this point, even
though they differ dramatically from those he espoused as a
candidate in 2000. Bush is more than willing to dilute his support
for political liberalization in his dealings with Russia and
Pakistan, but his gut-level instinct endures.

At various points in the campaign, Kerry has attempted to style
himself as a hard-headed foreign policy realist in the mode of
Henry Kissinger, and there has been a strand of this thinking
throughout his political career. Kerry was known to grimace when
the United States was called the “indispensable nation”
during the Clinton administration. But American voters show little
support for this philosophy at the polls and Kerry has prevented
himself from effectively criticizing Bush’s approaches to
Russia and Pakistan. In the case of the genocide in Darfur, Kerry
cannot credibly attack the president for his failure to act
decisively.

 

Cuba: In a world with North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan,
the septuagenarian dictator of a small island nation with 11
million people would be expected to elicit little attention. With
the debate taking place in metropolitan Miami, it’s a perfect
opportunity for each candidate to win a few votes on Cuba policy.
Bush’s controversial decision to impose additional
restrictions on visiting Cuba and sending remittances to the
country may have hurt his standing with younger and less hard-line
Cuban-Americans. Kerry will attempt to cleave off a chunk of the
Cuban-American vote with an appeal for a less painful approach to
Fidel Castro. Both candidates are sure to incorporate as many local
appeals as possible into the debate and if we’re really
lucky, maybe we’ll hear some broken Spanish from both Bush
and Kerry tonight.

 

Peskowtiz can be reached at
“mailto:zpeskowi@umich.edu”>zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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