Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC: Tim, what’s the bottom line on the three presidential debates? Conventional wisdom is they may have given Kerry-Edwards a boost.

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Russert: They did, if you go back and look at where the race was before the debates started. George Bush was comfortably ahead in almost all the polls and now they’re dead even.

But, just because you win the debates, doesn’t mean you win the election. And, I think, voters now have to decide who they want.

MSNBC: Yet, the latest Reuters/Zogby poll — out Friday, two days after the debate ends — shows with only 18 days until the elections, President George W. Bush has opened a four-point lead over Senator John Kerry, with the improvement coming among the undecideds, as well as his base Republican supporters.  What’s up there?

Russert: Clearly there are going to be a lot of tracking polls out there.  There have been for the past week. Some show it dead even, some show Kerry up a bit or Bush up a bit.

The poll out Friday shows Bush up a bit, there was a poll out last night that showed them dead even.

I think the undecided voters are going to figure out over the next ten days what they want and about a week before the election, we’ll have a pretty good sense of where this thing is trending.

MSNBC:  So, you think none of these polls are decisive yet?

Russert:  The race is going to shake out. There’s no doubt about it.

You know, in the past, when incumbents run for reelection, in the end, they’ve either won by a considerable margin or lost by a considerable margin. This may be some indication whether the race is breaking, but I think we ought to wait to see a few more polls. My guess is a few more events are going to occur between now and Election Day, before we can make a final judgment.

MSNBC: When that time comes, will it be “Florida, Florida, Florida” again in 2004 anyway?

Russert: I think there’re about ten undecided states. But in the end, its Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Whoever, wins two of those three is the next president.

MSNBC: Why is there such strong polarization when it comes to this election?

Video: Campaign turns personal

Russert: Many campaigns you have to choose between people who don’t have much of a difference of opinion – they kind of morph into each other.

This one is very clear. They have a strong difference of opinion between John Kerry and George Bush on taxes, abortion, gay rights, the war, whatever. Give me a subject, there’s a difference. And people understand that. They have to make a choice. It’s not as if people are confused as to where they stand on the issues. We now know where these men stand on all these issues.

It’s remarkable when you look at a country of 280-million people, that these candidates are going to go to the same ten states. It’s like they’re running for County sheriff or Iowa or Wisconsin – they go to the same counties, because they’re swing counties. Like in Toledo, Ohio – a battleground city that has more TV ad money spent in it than anywhere else in the county. That’s because that’s where the people – these undecided sing voters – have to decide if they want to stay the course or change the course.

Holy Toledo!

MSNBC: We’ve expected for a while that this electorate would be more polarized then in the past, but it also appears that it is more energized this year than four years ago.  Why is that?

Russert: If you look at the number of people who watched the debate, it was about 25% higher at 67-million over 45-million, I think, in the first one. And that’s carried right through. That’s why the turnout is so extraordinarily important here.

You mentioned “Florida, Florida, Florida.” One of the reasons the projections were so wrong by the networks in 2000 was because the turnout was so much bigger than had been anticipated. Democrats believe that if they can get more than 115-million people to vote, they have a very, very good chance of winning.

You just don’t know, until the end, who’s going to get off that couch and vote.

MSNBC: So, what will we see this Sunday on Meet the Press

Russert: We’ll have the very latest from each of the campaigns -- Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman and Kerry senior strategist Bob Shrum. This is the final countdown.

Then we continue our Meet the Press debate Senate series. This time all eyes on South Carolina: Inez Tenenbaum versus Rep. Jim DeMint. That’s a real race there, with real differences.

Congressman DeMint lit it up a couple of weeks ago when he said gays should not be allowed to teach in public schools and then went further and said single mothers should not be allowed to teach in public schools. He’s had to take back those comments.

Ms. Tenenbaum’s been criticized for not latching onto John Kerry as completely and aggressively as a Democrat should.

So, we’ll have a very healthy debate.


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