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Campaign Report Card

Less than one month until the election, Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn asked some top political insiders to offer updated grades on how the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns are doing.

Three weeks ago, the consensus was that the Bush campaign was outperforming the Kerry team. This time, the grades, like the race itself, are about even.

(Grades from previous Campaign Report Card are in parentheses.)

Gary Bauer
Leading social conservative and Republican presidential contender in 2000; now heads conservative group American Values

Bush: B- (B)
The main explanation for lowering his grade is that he had an opportunity to score a knockout punch in the first debate but let it slip through this fingers.

Kerry: C+ (D)
I'd raise Kerry to a C+ for milking every ounce of advantage that he could from the debate results.

Larry Sabato
Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia

Bush: B+ (A)
I lowered the grade because of the disaster of the debate. Reportedly, Bush started preparing for this debate in May. It really makes you wonder if that's the best he can do. Now, I didn't see the cutaways that night. I guess that's the reason why I thought he did better than he did.

That campaign has failed in one big respect: It hasn't challenged its candidate. It has insulated and protected him. So that when he heard up close and personal the criticisms that Kerry was making he became angry and the anger showed. It's cost him his lead and potentially could cost him the election. Potentially, we have two more debates and he could do better, you never know.

[Speaking about Bush's campaign stops, where he speaks to almost exclusively Republican audiences:] He gets total softballs. "Oh Mr. President, you are the greatest thing since cream cheese. I can't decide which Beatle you are, but I love all Beatles." This often happens to presidents. It only matters when you are in a tough race, which he is.

Kerry: B- (C)
I raised it because they prepared him very well for the key general election event so far, the first debate, which probably will have the largest viewership of any of them. Any campaign that can do that has got its priorities straight. I think that is a major reason why I raised the grade.

I still think they are speaking with many voices and are not the best-organized effort I've ever seen. He may win anyway. It may be a question of Bush collapsing rather than Kerry getting a booster rocket.

Donna Brazile
Al Gore's campaign manager during the 2000 presidential election

Bush: "weak" A- (A-)
He's still on his game. He retooled his message and is working the crowds better.

Kerry: "strong" A (B-)
He turned his campaign around. He is coming in for the closer.

Elaine Kamarck
A strategist during the Clinton administration who advised Al Gore; now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government

Bush: B (B)
While their campaign is still very good and very aggressive, Bush himself really gave a very poor performance and that is probably in the end going to matter more than what the campaign does. The other thing that is happening is that they continue to have a hard time with Iraq.

Kerry: A+ (B-)
Because he managed to dig himself out of a terrible hole that they had gotten themselves into between Swift Boats and the Republican convention.
He did precisely what he needed to do in the debate, which is make him a much more acceptable alternative to an incumbent president. The one way he did it was by being presidential. There's always a threshold in a presidential campaign that someone has to cross. And he crossed it magnificently and also had a bit of luck going for him, that Bush stumbled very badly.

Norman Ornstein
Director of the Transition to Governing Project at the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the Campaign Finance Reform Working Group

Bush: B/B+ (A-)
I can't say that their campaign has fallen apart just because things have tightened up a little bit. But I think they've lost some of their internal discipline; a little bit of hubris after the very strong August and much of September that they had, and internal divisions now, people pointing fingers. The discipline isn't quite what it has been.

When you see the president having to go out there and do the harsh attacks, that's when you see that they have some headaches ahead. But also, the Bush campaign continues its very good organization and getting voters out to the polls in early voting. They are still doing a better job of instant response, though I don't think that means as much. They did a great job countering everything Kerry said in the first debate, but that didn't help very much.

You had awful lot of people after their convention, after a couple of weeks of September, saying, 'Well it's all over.' Big mistake. They kept saying we all expect a close contest, but the mantra of just saying it doesn't mean you believe it.

Kerry: A (C-)
They obviously rebounded substantially. And, to their campaign's credit, they developed some internal discipline, turned the focus around and got an issue that would resonate with their own voters. They've been able to keep the Bush team a little more on the defensive than they ever imagined they could be – including debate preparation and what seemed to a lot of people to be an Obi-Wan Kenobi on debate negotiations, making them lay down and give them everything.

This turned out to be a very smart strategy on their part. Not only did they get a third debate, but having the podiums, instead of being a disadvantage for Kerry turned out to be an advantage. What they realized is that the first debate especially, but all of them, were going to be much more about John Kerry than they were going to be Kerry vs. Bush.

It was all about whether he could get over the bar of acceptability as a potential president. And standing at a podium looks more presidential, especially because he looked relaxed and had good posture and all of that.

Robert Shapiro
Political scientist at Columbia University

Bush: B- (A-)
It mainly has to do with his underperforming at the debate, both in terms of style and fumbling with some of the substance... I think it was basically just the inherent difficulty in defending the administration policy in Iraq. That is something that given the circumstances automatically puts them on the defensive. It may be inherently hard to deflect criticism but whether it was too hard or whether he missed opportunities, the way the campaign looked it was a B-.

What held up the grade was Cheney's performance in his debate, which was pretty good. Because of his articulateness and his steadfastness in defending the administration's positions.

Kerry: A- (C)
I think it was the impact of the first debate… coupled with the continuing events in Iraq. The situation there still looks basically bad or stalled and in particular there are continuing critics of how the Bush administration handled. Kerry and Edwards seized on it and basically there were new revelations

Charles Cook
Editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report

Bush: A (A)
The Bush campaign continues to be well planned, disciplined and executing well.

Kerry: A (B)
The Kerry campaign has smartly jettisoned the states they had been competing in where they never did have much of a chance – Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Virginia, and pulled out of Missouri, which had been surprisingly difficult. They made the right decision to focus resources on where it mattered rather than some futile effort to expand playing field. Colorado's the only "new" state and that happened on it's own.

The Kerry campaign is much improved.

By David Paul Kuhn

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