Down in the Polls, Can Kerry Afford to Be Aggressive?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Sept. 30, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: One way of looking at being down in the polls on debate night might be this, you have less to lose, more to gain. So can John Kerry (search) afford to take more chances, be more aggressive, go on the attack Thursday night?

For answers, we turn to FOX News contributor Susan Estrich, law professor, columnist and veteran of many Democratic campaigns, who joins us from the debate hall down in Florida.

Hello, Susan.


HUME: A couple of things before we get down to more serious matters. Was it a good idea to make a fuss at this last hour over the debate lights?

ESTRICH: Well, I don't think it was a particularly great idea to make a fuss about it. Particularly since what I'm hearing, Brit, is that John Kerry is coming in under the time in his debate session. So I guess the staff was making a fuss. But it didn't do him any good. And from what I understand, Kerry has got his answers down. So the most important thing is to keep your answers down, not make fusses.

HUME: And the manicure.

ESTRICH: The manicure! Help me with the manicure.


HUME: I've had a manicure in my life. It was a rather pleasant experience. But do you think it was the thing to do today, perhaps?

ESTRICH: No! No! No! Look, I get my nails done all the time. I mean I'm a fool for manicures. But obviously, what John Kerry needs to do tonight, among other things, is make a connection with average working people. And probably the way to start doing that is not with a manicure. Now, you've had them. But my guess is most men don't stop on their way to an important event with a manicure.

But my hope is for John Kerry's sake, is that tonight people will forget about the manicure. And what he's got to do is sort of like the Lakers do every year in the championship series. Say the preseason is over. The regular season doesn't count and it begins tonight. If he can't do that, then as Matt Dowd says, he's got troubles tonight.

HUME: It does seem that he has a somewhat complex task. And he probably needs to hit the president pretty hard, or maybe not. That would be something I'd like you to respond to. And at the same time, manage to be an appealing person doing it.

ESTRICH: You got it exactly, Brit. The big debate, I'm told this week in the debate prep sessions for Kerry, has been the positive-negative mix. How much negative on Bush? How much positive for the future on Kerry? And as of this morning I was told, it was about 25-75. That is, 25 percent negative, 75 percent positive. And the advantage on that for Kerry, in addition to being more appealing, is that people still want to know what Kerry would do to make things better.

And it forces Bush, instead of attacking Kerry on his past record, or swift boats (search) or whatever it is, to go to the future. And so if Kerry can maintain his discipline, and that's what I would watch tonight, he'll go to the future. If he gets sucked in to the back and forth, you'll see them attacking each other on the pass. And that's the challenge for Kerry.

HUME: Does Senator Kerry need to make the case tonight that things really are going very badly in Iraq, and that the president is paint ago falsely rosy picture there? And how does that figure in the calculus on positive-negative?

ESTRICH: Well, he needs to make that case, Brit, because that's really the case for change, and for change in the presidency. But if all he does is make the case without a positive answer to it, then he leaves people saying, well, be that as it may. Unless you've got something better to do, then you're the guy who also voted for it. So he's got to make the case on Iraq. But I believe, and I think the key advisers inside his campaign believe, that he's got to do it in a context that also says to people I, John Kerry, have a better answer and a better future for you, and it's future-oriented. So it's really a dicey walk.

But the bottom line is he's got to engage people. Because if this debate isn't engaging, entertaining, lively, even within the rules that Chris described, then people won't want to tune in next week for St. Louis, or the week after for Arizona. And really what Kerry has got to do is create the beginning of a three-game series here, that people will watch and get involved in.

HUME: There was a four-point plan that was articulated by Senator Kerry in recent days, for how he will deal with the situation in Iraq. I don't know what struck you. What struck me about it is that the points within it were all things that the president and his team either are doing or are trying to do. Is that plan sufficiently different, in your eyes, to make people think oh, well, Kerry will take us in a new direction?

ESTRICH: Well, not yet. I mean I thought you were going to ask me to do the four-point plan. And I was getting kind of nervous, because I don't think I can do the four-point plan. So I don't think he's got it there yet. I don't think most Americans, if you ask them right now, what's the difference between the Kerry plan and the Bush plan, could tell you for love or money. And if they can't by the end of tonight, that's not good news for Kerry.

HUME: Just to tick off a few that would come to my mind; one is to try to get more international help. The second was that you accelerate the training of the Iraqis, right?

ESTRICH: Right. But you know, who doesn't want to accelerate the training of the Iraqis, you know? I mean, you know, you say that more international help. I'm sure we'd all like more international help. Who would like to volunteer to have their kids die instead of our kids?

I mean I think most people are going to be looking for more than that. And that's why I keep coming back to this question of what's the positive- negative split within the campaign, within the Kerry campaign, that is. There are some people who are arguing that because they didn't do it this summer, they have to make more of a negative case. There are others who are arguing go positive. So we'll see tonight.

HUME: We sure will, Susan. Thanks so much for being with us.

ESTRICH: My pleasure.

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