Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.  Today he takes a look at the final presidential debate and where we go from here.

MSNBC: Tim, the final debate is over. Did it change America’s opinion?

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Tim Russert: I don't think it will change much. It is up to Americans now to make up their minds. Do they want to change or keep the president there?

But it was quite interesting. 

I thought there was a deep and a profound change in the demeanor of the candidates this debate, from the previous ones.

In the last debate, George Bush was jumping off his chair, almost yelling on the stage.  Wednesday night he was much more soft-spoken — a return to the compassionate conservative theme we saw in the election of 2000.

John Kerry, who had broken away from some of the Senate talk in the first debate, very much delved into statistics and data, trying to demonstrate convincingly that he does have a good record and he knows a lot about the whole notion of governing.

I think both candidates lost an opportunity when debate moderator asked, “What would you say to a worker who lost his job to someone overseas for a lower wage?” They didn’t take the opportunity to really connect with that person or to that question or to the audience.

MSNBC: Several times President Bush hammered Sen. Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal and associated him with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Is that an effective strategy for the Republicans?

Russert: Well, it’s the one they finally settled on after a couple weeks of “flip-flop” attacks on Sen. Kerry. They decided the “L” word is going to bring them success.

It’s something President Bush’s father used to great success in 1988 against Michael Dukakis.  Whether the issues of Iraq, the state of the economy and health care are bigger than the labels, we’ll find out. But it is going to be something you’re going to hear over and over again for the next 19 days.

MSNBC: Some are suggesting President Bush almost seemed Al Gore-like in changing his style between debates.

Russert: That’s a very interesting analogy. You know, it was suggested Al Gore was three different people in the three different debates.

In this particular series, George W. Bush showed up in the first debate smirking — the equivalent of Al Gores sighs, they say. Then he was extremely aggressive in the second debate. In the third, he had a much more mellow tone.

John Kerry seemed to be relatively the same person in all three. Although, in the third, he was much more enmeshed in the details and the statistics then he had been in the previous debate.

MSNBC: John Kerry really made an effort to appeal to women — the so-called “security moms.” He very much, at every opportunity, it seems, embraced his faith — even at one point, quoting from the Bible. What is his strategy with those two approaches?

Russert: What he’s trying to do is neutralize George Bush’s attempt to suggest that he’s out of the mainstream or on the far left by constantly referring to his religious upbringing — which would cast himself as much more in the center of American life.  On the issue of women, there wasn’t a moment that he didn’t constantly refer to women’s wages not being the same as men’s, women benefiting from the increase in minimum wage and references to kids on health care and kids on education. 

He knows one simple fact. He must carry women by 10 points to overcome George W. Bush’s 10-point advantage with men. 

Also, Kerry had an emphasis on African-Americans. If John Kerry has a big turnout with women, blacks and Hispanics, he knows he’s the next president of the United States.

MSNBC: When both candidates were asked if they believe homosexuality is a choice, John Kerry referred to Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter — a homosexual. Mr. Cheney said it was inappropriate. The vice president's wife, Lynne Cheney, called it a cheap and tawdry political trick. Was it fair game?

Russert: Clearly the vice president’s daughter is now well-known in terms of her sexuality.  I think what Sen. Kerry was trying to do, in a long and thoughtful answer as to whether homosexuality is biological or leaned behavior, was to reference something that was very much in the news. I understand the sensitivity of the Cheneys. Whether Sen. Kerry was trying to exploit it politically is something I just can’t judge.  But clearly both men had extremely different answers on that. President Bush saying he wasn’t sure if being gay was choice or not. My sense is that Sen. Kerry was trying very hard to also connect with the gay community.

MSNBC: The candidates need 270 electoral votes to become president of the United States. How’s the NBC Electoral College map stand and what do they need to do to win now?

Russert: We have George Bush ahead in 25 states, with 217 electoral votes. Sen. John Kerry ahead in 14 states and the District of Columbia for 200 electoral votes. How do they get that magical 270 number? This is the key: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. If you win two of those three, you're on your way to the presidency.

If the president wins Florida and Ohio, which he did in 2000, that would give him 47 more — 264. He would need six. How does he get those? Either New Hampshire, Nevada or West Virginia, if he wins two of these three — all of which he won in 2000.

If John Kerry wins Ohio and Pennsylvania, that would give him 241.  He then would need to go to Iowa, Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico. He'd have to win four of those five — all which Al Gore won — and he would have his 270.

But the key remains, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Whoever wins two of those three, I believe, will be the next president and that’s what this debate was all about.

MSNBC:  Do you think we could have a repeat of 2000, with Sen. Kerry winning the popular vote and yet President Bush wins the Electoral College?

Russert:  We could — or even vice-versa.

There are 39 states that appear to have made up their minds and 11 battleground states that are too close to call. But these elections with incumbents generally have a way of beginning to emerge in the next 10 days or so. Anything is possible, believe me.

I worked that Electoral College map last night. I came up with 269 versus 269 one time. So, strap yourself in. Let’s enjoy baseball and politics. It’s a great time to be alive.


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