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Commentary: Lehrer Questions Undecided

Monday, February 23, 2004

With the New York primary coming up, the latest Marist Poll finds New Yorkers have a clear preference, with 66 percent supporting John Kerry, just 14 percent for John Edwards, and only ten percent undecided. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says he doesn't believe it.

Brian: If only ten percent of New Yorkers are undecided, I must know all of them. It seems like everywhere I go, Democrats ask me the same the question: who should I vote for? Kerry or Edwards?

This, of course, is a question I cannot answer for another person, so I respond with some questions of my own. What do you want in a candidate? And what is it that's leaving you ambivalent?

As it turns out, the people in this informal, unsolicited, thoroughly unscientific focus group tend to have a simple five word answer to both questions: they say, I want to beat Bush.

For those voting on an issue or for the candidate who seems to care about them, life is much simpler. The Sharpton and Kucinich voters, for example, know who they are. But every anti-Bush voter is his own private pundit, and is forced to answer a question fraught with pitfalls: who will be the most attractive to people who are NOT like me? Who will appeal to swing voters who consider Bush a reasonable choice while I hate his guts.

So far, the electability vote around the country has gone overwhelmingly to Kerry. But look for Edwards to challenge that assumption aggressively here in New York, creating more undecided voters. And he's got a case to make. Exit polls show Edwards has been winning among voters who describe themselves as moderate, independent, and who care most about jobs. Sounds like swing voters to me. Kerry has been winning among voters who describe themselves as liberal, and who care most about, well, beating George Bush.

So where does that leave the calculating Gothamite who's hooked on electability? In a New York pickle, that's where.

Kerry has the experience, the Vietnam war record and the vocal gravitas, but Edwards is more charismatic, has less of a voting history for the Republicans to pick at, and he's southern. People who once voted for Jesse Helms have voted for him. That's got to play well with the NASCAR dads, if there really is such a thing. And the latest Gallup poll finds either Kerry or Edwards would beat Bush if the election were held today, by virtually identical margins.

So democrats? Feel paralyzed by all this? Don't. It actually all leads to a liberating irony: If you now conclude that it's anyone's guess who can better beat Bush, you are now free to vote for the candidate who you actually like! For the next ten days, you may now give yourself permission to stop being obsessed with how to get the bad guys, and actually take a good long look at these candidates' records, their funders, and their promises. And you can look into their eyes in the next debate and ask: which one of these guys do I trust?

To help you with some of this in the context of a New York primary, we've posted links on our website to the urban issues pages of the candidates' sites. Go to www.wnyc.org and click on vote2004. And may the better man win.

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