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updated 7/20/2004 12:06:43 PM ET 2004-07-20T16:06:43

Beginning today, I will be writing a regular column exclusively for MSNBC.com that will take people behind the scenes of this 2004 presidential election campaign. After seven presidentials, I know enough to say two things right off the bat:

  • no two campaigns are ever alike;
  • anyone who tells you they’re an “expert” on presidential campaigns is either a fool or a liar.  Probably both. 

All I will promise to do in this space is to pick apart the conventional wisdom - what I call “Inside the Box” thinking— and then offer up some observations about this election that you might not read about anywhere else, those things that fall “Outside the Box” of most political reporting.

Inside the box
Right now the pressure is beginning to build within both the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns. Witness the recent furor over the expletive directed at Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy by Vice President Cheney on the Senate floor. Or the continuing fallout over Whoopi Goldberg’s risqué routine at a Democratic fundraiser in New York City that resulted in her losing a lucrative endorsement deal with SlimFast.

A year ago— or a year from now— these incidents wouldn’t have garnered more than a passing mention in the press, if that. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof: on March 10, 2003, while she was guest hosting for David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg’s monologue included this line: “All this war talk has gotten me upset, but it’s not a surprise because we are led by a Bush, a Dick and a Colin.”  No uproar, no protests, no righteous (or right-wing) indignation. Why? Because it wasn’t during a presidential campaign, when every word and every action is endlessly scrutinized under the white-hot light of 24/7 media attention.

The mind-set inside the Kerry-Edwards national campaign office in Washington, DC and across the Potomac in the Bush-Cheney ‘04 headquarters in Arlington, Virginia is remarkably similar.  With each passing day, the cumulative effects of too-little sleep and mounting responsibilities are taking their toll on both staffs. 

Everyone in each campaign, from campaign managers Mary Beth Cahill and Ken Mehlman down to the fresh-faced college students who prepare the daily news clips, is painfully aware that any mistake, any misstep could ultimately be fatal.  But it’s not their jobs that they’re worried about, not now.  Now every single campaign staffer feels the pressure of not wanting to let down their party or even their country.  As Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Outside the box
Last week’s selection of John Edwards to be John Kerry’s running mate has been widely described by “knowledgeable observers” as a bold move to break the Republican stranglehold on the solid South. Wrong. Oh sure, the choice of Edwards puts North Carolina into play and will certainly cause the Bush campaign to spend more time and money in states that they might otherwise assume were safe.  But at the end of the day (or night) on November 2nd, I predict that the most important benefit from John Edwards’ presence on the ticket will be determined by whether or not Ohio’s 20 electoral votes wind-up in the Blue column.

What most people don’t recognize about Ohio (but what John Kerry and Jim Johnson, the sage chief of his vice presidential search effort, obviously did) is that it’s really two states: a northern Ohio, where voters in Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown, like their neighbors in Michigan and Pennsylvania (both carried by Gore in 2000), lean more Democratic, and a southern and southeastern Ohio, where Cincinnati, far closer to Kentucky than to Cleveland both politically and geographically, went solidly for Bush four years ago.

Edwards’ great strength will be in his ability to work the back roads of those rural counties in Ohio that share borders with Kentucky and West Virginia. He proved extremely skillful at connecting with small town voters in the Iowa caucuses and I believe he will turn out to have been the Democrat’s secret weapon should they carry Ohio and, as a result, win the White House.

A final note
No one can say for certain yet what the turning point in this year’s presidential campaign will be.  Remember that in 1976, Gerald Ford’s unfortunate observation that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” came late in the campaign during a debate with Jimmy Carter, and is now widely viewed as the crucial turning point in what was a very close election.

However, barring any such dramatic event this fall, I believe that history will judge the pivotal moment in the 2004 campaign to have been that day, last November, when 300,000 Howard Dean supporters voted online to support their candidate in “opting-out” of the federal financing system for presidential campaigns.  As I’ve said before, this created a domino effect that resulted in John Kerry’s decision to do the same thing, thus allowing him to almost match President Bush dollar for dollar in campaign spending.

Remember that old story about how for “want of a nail…the kingdom was lost?”  The nail in this year’s presidential horseshoe (and possibly in George W. Bush’s political career) may well have been hammered-in by 300,000 Americans who decided that they finally wanted a fair fight in this year’s campaign.

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