WASHINGTON – With the televised debates behind them, President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) have little opportunity to shape further the presidential race except by waging an intense effort in the home stretch aimed at getting out the vote.
Voters have a pretty good idea now what Bush and Kerry are all about. There isn't much room for either one to "define" his opponent or himself.
At this point, getting out the vote is equally — if not more — important than winning over the dwindling number of undecided voters, strategists in both parties agree.
With just two weeks to go to the election, polls showed Bush and Kerry in a dead heat — back where they were at the beginning of the summer before the party conventions.
"If anything, there's a little tail wind for Kerry coming out of the debates," said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center (search). "Just as there was a little tail wind for Bush in August. But when would you rather have a little tail wind, in August or in mid-October?"
Kohut said how successful each side is in getting out its vote "is one of the most important elements in the end game. I think there is a fair number of votes still up for grabs. And some people aren't going to get any real convictions until we get right up to Election Day."
Both the Democrats and the Republicans, along with well-financed activist groups on both the left and the right, have spent months pouring resources into registering voters after the near deadlock of the 2000 presidential race and polls showing an extremely tight race again this year.
There has been an avalanche of new voter registrations at election boards across the nation. Now, with most registration deadlines passed, political activists for both candidates are pounding the pavement to ensure voters get to polling places on Nov. 2.
Particular efforts are being directed at minorities, with a big effort on the fast-growing bloc of Hispanic voters.
Most indications are that voter turnout will be high, given the high viewership of the debates and polls showing a larger-than-usual number of voters saying they're following the campaign closely.
Turnout could mean the difference between victory and defeat in closely contested states.
Democrats are turning widespread concern about the war in Iraq and worry over the economy into voter recruitment lures. Meanwhile, Republicans are investing far more in get-out-the-vote drives than ever before, with an assist from religious and socially conservative advocacy groups.
Despite huge amounts spent by both sides on negative advertising, the three presidential and one vice presidential debates allowed Americans to see the candidates as they are, up close and unvarnished, supplanting campaign-generated caricatures.
"These debates have essentially undone what amounts to $100 million in negative attacks," said Kerry senior strategist Mike Donilon.
Since the nation already had a pretty good measure of Bush, Kerry benefited the most from the debates that showed him more than holding his own with the president, polls suggest.
Marc Racicot, Bush's campaign chairman, said Americans now have before them "the central issue of the campaign: who are these two people, what will they bring to the office?"
Campaigning in a dwindling number of battleground states, both Bush and Kerry will try to energize their political base with red-meat attacks, even as they keep reaching out for undecided voters.
"There is a small number out there to fight for. Neither guy at this point has totally closed the sale," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
Kerry will build on his debate performances by emphasizing differences between himself and Bush on taxes, Social Security, health care, abortion rights, stem cell research and Supreme Court appointees, advisers said.
Bush and his surrogates will continue to paint Kerry as indecisive, despite his self-assured debate performance, and on the "far left bank" of American politics, as Bush charged in the final debate.
Republicans hope to both fire up their troops with such attacks and to continue to sow doubts about Kerry, perhaps in hopes of persuading fence-sitters to stay home rather than going to the polls and voting for the Democrat.
Undecided voters usually break for the challenger by two or three to one.
Democrats suggest any attempt, no matter how indirect, to get certain voters to stay home as part of a get-out-the-vote effort is doomed to fail.
"Every bit of evidence in this campaign is that the country is intensely interested in this election," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. "People are following it very closely, they're taking in enormous amounts of information, they're treating it very seriously. So I think betting on keeping people home is not a good bet, and not a particularly good approach."