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WASHINGTONFriday's presidential debate is supposed to focus on domestic issues, but that's not why people will be watching. They'll be looking to see whether George Bush Junior has got all his marbles, after he seemed so worn out and petulant in last week's debate.
There are times when you've got to wonder whether the real Bush game plan is to spread the White House psychosis like an infectious disease to the rest of the population. Or maybe mass hypnosis is what the planners have up their sleeves.
Anyhow, the electorate has been getting a little nervous about the president. In Pennsylvania, where two weeks ago the respected Keystone poll tilted slightly toward Bush, support now has swung back, with John Kerry running ahead48 percent to 41 percent.
"This is Kerry's largest advantage in Pennsylvania, and is slightly larger than the margin he held after the Democratic National Convention," writes Keystone. "Kerry's lead is somewhat smaller among likely voters, 49 percent to 43 percent."
The Zogby poll also shows Kerry ahead in Pennsylvania, 51.8 to 46.
Heading into Friday's debate, Kerry appears to be getting stronger in other battleground states: In Florida, Zogby is saying the race is even. ARG shows Kerry at 47 in Florida, with Bush at 45. But Mason Dixon puts Bush at 48, Kerry at 44.
The first debate, last week, was predicted to be Bush's chance to stump on the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror. Now the president must turn to domestic policy, turf where Democrats have generally been stronger.
Possible central issues in Friday's debate:
Social questions: Here is where the real contrast lies. Kerry is for reproductive choice, and would overturn Bush's limits on stem-cell research. Neither candidate supports gay marriage, but the president wants a constitutional amendment banning it. The Bush camp is playing up Bush's alliance with God, and trying to pander to the fundamentalist Christian vote.
Meanwhile, journalists are taking seriously pollsters who are wondering whether Kerry's failure to mention God in his stump speeches may result in more votes for Bush. When Christians, and not just the right-wing fundamentalist variety, figure out Kerry is soft on God, they'll awake with a start and rush to the president's sideor so one theory goes. Kerry, of course, is a crucifix-wearing Catholic. But the pros apparently think he'd better do something more, like talk about God a lot or wave that crucifix around or sing some hymns, etc., just so everyone gets the picture he's not some sicko left-leaning atheist.
Energy: If we've won the war in Iraq, which quite probably has the world's largest petroleum reserves, how come prices are so high? The answer is that international oil prices long have been set by a small groups of huge international companies through cartels and other devices, but these days that subject is not up for discussion. Bush and Kerry agree on diversifying our foreign oil suppliers, looking to places like West Africa, where immense oil and gas finds in the Gulf of Guinea promise long-term supply for the East Coast of the U.S. They would doubtless increase purchases from Mexico and Canada. And both do the requisite bow to alternative fuels, which played a bigger role in the American economy in the first quarter of the last century than they do now.
The economy: Both would continue the smoke-and-mirrors game of playing one tax cut against another, a process that allows their corporate sponsors plenty of room to sneak in their own special rake-offs. Why can't the Congress just vote money to rebuild the nation's infrastructure? Not possible, since it would amount to socialism and would increase the power of the federal government, which Bush wants to redistribute to the states.
George Will explains the president's jobs program in today's Washington Post, focusing on Bush's hopes to further privatize federal jobs. That would break the hold of the powerful public employee unions, which Will says siphon off their members' dues to support the Democratic Party: "Bush is pressing to put hundreds of thousands of federal jobs up for competition with the private sector. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform says, 'The people who cut the Pentagon lawn are government employees. Why?' People listed in the phone book will do it cheaper. How many of the 15 million state and local government jobs could be privatized, with how many billions of dollars in savings?"
Health care: Both candidates back opening up the federal employees' insurance program to the rest of the population. That's a lot better than nothing. And Kerry would have the government share with the states in paying for health care for 20 million children. (This simple, basic idea comes from that notorious "leftist" Howard Dean, who as a former governor of Vermont was the one contender in the Democratic primary race who had ever actually done something about health care.)
The Patriot Act: Bush wants to extend the Patriot Act, even as prosecutions based on it are falling to pieces in the federal courts. The Democrats all voted to support the act, with little dissent. It's doubtful anyone actually read it through. Now that the courts are beginning to toss out parts of it, the Dems may gain the nerve to oppose it, or at least parts of it.
Research: David Botti