Tim Russert is NBC News' Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  Each week he'll offer MSNBC.com's readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, there’s less than 39 days remaining until Election Day.  NBC just released a new poll.  Where do you see big picture standing now, what with the “swing states”?

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Tim Russert:  I think that there are now probably about nine real swing states in play right now.  And the interesting thing is, of those, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa – which Al Gore won in 2000 – are now leaning towards President George W. Bush.

The only way for Senator John Kerry to win, is to hold onto those states and then win the swing states of New Hampshire and West Virginia – that had gone for Bush in 2000.  And, Kerry must win wither Florida or Ohio and he’s behind in both of those.

There’s no doubt that John Kerry is behind nationally by four or five points.  He’s behind in the majority of the swing battleground states.  The momentum seems to be with the president.  But it’s a long five weeks.  Kerry’s made up some ground over the last couple of weeks.

In the polls, President Bush has the upper hand on leadership and on likeability.  But on issues other than terrorism – on domestic issues, on the economy, people are siding with the views as presented by Senator Kerry.

Kerry is the underdog.  President Bush has the momentum.  But the race is far from over.

MSNBC:  This Thursday, in Miami, we’ll have the first presidential debate.  How important is it?

Russert:  We always talk about them being critical and of importance, but you know what?  It is.

People have to take the measure of John Kerry and decide whether or not they can envision him sitting in the oval Office.  He has not yet resonated in that way.  He has not yet connected and this is his one and only chance.

MSNBC:  It appears that, not only has Senator Kerry decided to make Iraq the issue for the next five to six weeks, but he’s going to have a plan to lay out.

Russert:  He has to say to the American people, “Things have not gone well in Iraq.  The president has mismanaged the war.  It has been filled with misjudgments.  And, the only way to improve or change it is to change presidents.”

George Bush has to say, “Nonsense.  John Kerry voted for the war.  You can’t cut and run.  You have to stay the course.  Iraq is a central piece in the war on terrorism. You have to take the fight to them.”

John Kerry will counter, “It’s not a central piece of the war on terrorism.  It’s a distraction.  The war should have been against al Qaida.”

It’s going to be a wonderful debate, because there’s a real difference of opinion and the American people have to decide who they agree with.

MSNBC:  Yesterday, President Bush criticizing some of John Kerry’s statements about Iraq which, Mr. Bush said, could embolden an enemy.

Russert:  It was a very strong statement.  And also, when Sen. Kerry criticized the prime minister of Iraq for not being candid enough about the situation in his country, Vice President Cheney pounced on him.

I think this is kind of a preview of what we’re going o see at the debate.  John Kerry is going to try to make the president’s credibility the issue:  Did he mislead the country on weapon s of mass destruction, on being greeted as liberators on managing the war.  It, frankly, is John Kerry’s only chance for people to nod their heads and say, “You’re right.  Things in Iraq have not gone well, and the only way to change them is by changing presidents.”

MSNBC:  Then this first debate, next Thursday – focusing on foreign policy – could it be the most important of all the debates?

Russert:  I don’t think there’s any question.  In fact, the history of the debates is that the first is the most viewed.  People take the measure of the men.  And every indication we have gotten from all the surveys is that this audience is going to be huge for this debate on Thursday night.

MSNBC:  There are some polls showing that one in four people are waiting for the debates to make the final decision.

Russert:  That’s amazing.  We’re five weeks away from the election and people still have a very open mind.  I do believe it is John Kerry’s only opportunity to have a chance to talk to the American people in a way that people can see him for who he is.  Whether or not he measures up to the task is entirely up to him.

MSNBC:  As they go over the issues on foreign policy in this first debate, what do you expect the president is going to do?

Russert:  The president is going to say, “This is a war on terror and we have to take the fight to them or they’re going to take it to us, on our shores and Iraq is a single component – the most important component – of that war on terror.”

Look for Kerry to jump in and say, “Just a second, Iraq is not part of the war on terror.  It was a distraction – something we didn’t have to do.  The war on terror is al Qaida and Osama bin Laden.  You took us off on this venture that had absolutely nothing to do with September 11th or our safety as we have found out by the absence of weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s going to be a very robust discussion and people are going to have to make up their minds who they believe and who they trust in terms of their judgment, their wisdom and their future in terms of terror.

MSNBC:  Who will we see on Meet the Press Sunday?

Russert:  We have an exclusive interview with General John Abizaid, the man who’s leading the troops in Iraq.  He has not been on television in very long time.  We are trying to get a candid assessment as to what’s really happening on the ground over there.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that maybe elections couldn’t take place throughout the whole country.  What does that mean?  We’ll try to find out.

Then we’re going to talk about the debate – this one coming up next Thursday and past presidential debates’ key, magical moments in them, with our political roundtable.

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