Going into tonight's debate, let's take a look at the last week of Rasmussen's tracking poll.
Forget Bush's one-day gain of 1.2 points. As of now, that's a blip, and can't be considered anything other than a blip until it's held steady for three or four days. Forget, too, Kerry's one-day, one-point drop. Blip city, folks. What it looks like we're seeing here is the final exhaustion of Bush's three-week long convention bounce - and it leaves us looking at a one- or two-point race.
Needless to say, a stellar performance by either candidate could result in a two or three point gain. Maybe more, but I doubt it.
I doubt either guy will commit a serious gaffe, for reasons explained in some detail by the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows. For serious political junkies, that link is today's Required Reading. Regular humans should get on with their real lives already.
And, frankly, I doubt either Bush or Kerry will put in a stellar performance, either. Kerry, when he's at his best, is also at his most unlikable. That won't go over as well with the broader American public as it has in the past with Massachusetts voters. Bush, at his best, is simply on message.
So. With all that in mind, here's how to score tonight's debate.
If Kerry screws up, then he's Mike Dukakis Jr, and we might as well just cancel the election and paint 40 states red. What would constitute a Kerry screw-up? Could be something as simple as a fake tan. Could be something as simple (sort of) as trying to sound too smart in an attempt to make Bush look dumb - thus making a lot of Americans feel dumb. And we don't like that. Just ask that guy who won a bazillion dollars on Jeopardy. Think he got any dates before the big payoff?
If Bush screws up, he'll have to screw up, as Dick Cheney likes to say, big-time, to make much difference. We've been watching this guy for five years, and we know better than to expect Winston Churchill, or even Tony Blair. Have I bought into the Low Expectations Game? Maybe - but I know good debate, and Bush on a good night still oftentimes makes me wince.
If Kerry whups Bush and whups him good, then he can stop worrying about states like New Jersey, Minnesota, and New Mexico - which would put a minimum of 30 EC votes back in his pocket. That's no small change. What would count as a whupping? Taking Bush off message, making him do that blinking thing, making Bush look like the flip-flopper. Any and all of which Kerry could do.
If Bush whups Kerry, then, again, it's all over. What would count as a whupping? Leaving Kerry speechless (something I'd pay real American dollars to see), making Kerry look unnervingly boring, successfully painting Kerry as an overly-nuanced flip-flopper. The first two whups probably aren't doable - Kerry is just too nimble a debater. The third is the trap Bush has been setting for Kerry for months. All that remains to be seen is, can the trap be sprung? Well, that depends on Kerry - and any trap relying on the willingness of the intended victim isn't all that likely to work.
All in all, Kerry has a slight performance edge. However, he also has the most to lose. Makes for an exciting night, yes?
REMINDER: I'll drunkblog the debate tonight. Same as Bush's convention speech, I'll have dinner beforehand, consisting of one large burrito and two strong beers. Then, as many martinis as it takes to get me through the gawdawful show.