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The announced topic of the first presidential debate was foreign policy, but the make-or-break question underlying that 90-minute broadcast had nothing directly to do with Iraq or North Korea or the Middle East: Do the American people want John Kerry in their living rooms for the next four years?

It would be easy to attribute President Bush's lead in the polls to a squandered Democratic convention, a complacent and upbeat affair that tried to build Kerry up in one of the two areas that have been Bush's strengths: leadership (the other being the war on terrorism). The attempt failed miserably and also fell short of providing a sharp and focused attack on Bush's weaknesses -- the economy and jobs, health care and prescription drug costs, and ballooning federal budget deficits. Indeed, Kerry campaign officials urged Democratic convention speakers to tone down their criticism of Bush, lest the convention seem too negative.

It would also be easy to say that the Kerry campaign allowed early charges that Kerry is a flip-flopper to stand without showing Bush's own acrobatics -- for example, on creation of a Department of Homeland Security, establishment of a 9/11 commission, and the justifications for the Iraq war, just to name a few. And the Kerry campaign wasted resources trying to win certain "red" states in the South that were never very realistic targets for Democrats.

But one could just as easily credit the brilliance of the Bush campaign plan and the effectiveness of its execution. My economist friends invariably argue that the economy is now sufficiently strong that any president would be ahead at this stage, although that view seems to ignore that there are few signs of recovery in several key battleground states.

It's also my hunch that the Chechen terrorist attack that took the lives of hundreds of Russian schoolchildren helped link the war in Iraq to the global war on terrorism in a way that the Bush administration had been unable to do. I also suspect that the Russian massacre weakened women's support for Kerry.

All of these factors explain only part of Bush's pre-debate lead. Going into the debate, Americans didn't seem to like John Kerry. Earlier, when polls began to show that most Kerry supporters said that they were voting more against Bush than for Kerry, I chalked up the results to the antipathy toward Bush among liberals, Democrats, and a few independents and moderates.

But as the campaign progressed, Kerry's lack of warmth seemed to be what was keeping him from being perceived as a viable alternative. Democratic and Republican pollsters alike tell of focus groups in which swing voters describe being underwhelmed by Kerry personally and say he just hasn't connected with them.

In early September, a friend who is a pollster and a lifelong Democrat told me, "The undecideds face a dilemma. Up to 70 percent think the country is on the wrong track, and they cannot abide four more years of Bush. But they find Kerry distasteful and snooty and hard to take, and can't stand the idea of one hour of Kerry as president. So what do they do?"

Successful presidential challengers have come across as interesting, with personal traits that appealed to voters predisposed to boot out the incumbent.

In 1976, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer, Naval Academy graduate, and former nuclear submarine officer with a family right out of Fried Green Tomatoes, was a novel character on the national scene. He projected an honesty that was particularly refreshing in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Four years later, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan's unusual personal history and engaging manner helped him connect. He overcame voters' reservations about his lack of national experience with his plain-speaking manner and message of limited government.

In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's manner drove conservatives and Republicans crazy but was appealing enough to help propel him past an embattled incumbent. Only a hard-core Republican or conservative could not find the 1992 video introducing Clinton, "A Place Called Hope", inspiring.

Going into last Thursday night, Kerry had not stacked up like Carter, Reagan, or Clinton.

So the question that we should ask ourselves now is, did Kerry find a way to make voters want to keep him in their living rooms?

 
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