Meanwhile, in the Real World...
I went down to Philadelphia this weekend for the Yom Kippur holiday, my first time home in three or four months. Between fasting, sleeping (which greatly facilitated the fasting), and trading jokes with relatives, I had the chance to talk a little politics outside the circle of liberal-minded folks I speak with in my everyday life in New York, and the dedicated observers I so enjoy dialoguing (monologuing? the comment button is just a click away) with here in the big nowhere. Interesting stuff.
My dad was a Republican for most of his life but has thankfully figured some things out; I think he drifted away from the Dems around when JFK was killed, and came back sometime during Clinton's second term when he concluded that peace and prosperity were, on the whole, things to be desired. My uncle remains a Republican, but is far from an ideologue or absolutist; he voted for Clinton the first time, and supported Ed Rendell for governor in PA a couple years back. He's probably best described as a fiscal conservative with more or less libertarian tendencies (phrases I'd happily hear applied to myself). He gets most of his news from NPR. So it was interesting to hear them share their impressions of the campaign thus far.
My uncle is likely but not quite certain to vote for Bush. He admits without prompting that he disagrees with the president on a bunch of issues, including the irresponsible spending and the execution--though not the basic concept or justification--of the war in Iraq. If we'd gone in with half a million men and just occupied the place, then held elections as quickly as feasible, we might have achieved our objectives; he believes the administration was actually too concerned with not coming off as overbearing, and this more than the neocon utopianism I believe to be at fault was the reason the U.S. didn't go in with sufficient force to really secure the country.
Despite these fairly substantial differences with the Republicans--and his ready admission that what he dislikes most about that party is their seemingly complete unwillingness or inability to admit mistakes--he probably will pull the lever for Bush. The main reason why seems to be his confusion about what, if anything, Kerry stands for and what he would do in power. He thought the Democratic convention was utterly without substance and did nothing to define the candidate (reminding me, though I didn't tell him at the time, that for awhile I thought Kerry should just change his name to "Not-Bush"); in general, he argues, the Democrats seem to seek the ill-defined middle on every issue, and are counting on the country to reject Bush rather than affirmatively choose Kerry, if you get my drift. I'm afraid he's absolutely right in this strategic analysis... though, as discussed ad nauseum on this site, the press doesn't help with its mostly substance-free coverage of the campaign.
My dad is pretty certain to vote for Kerry, but he also doesn't really get what the Democrat is trying to sell; he's more like me, I think, in that he just wants Bush out and figures that, at worst, Kerry will take us toward hell at a slower pace. He kept talking about how the Democrats have mismanaged the campaign (a theme of my uncle's as well; he singled out Mary Beth Cahill for particular scorn) and should just be pushing a message of comprehensive change: on Iraq, on the anti-terror effort, on the economy. Clear differences with Bush are the key. I also asked him how most of his friends--largely Jewish middle-aged professionals like himself--are likely to vote; he thinks most will support Kerry, but also believes that Bush's absolutist pro-Israel line might win some of his friends over. (I wonder if Kerry, who seems about as pro-Israel as Bush is, will make a point of this in Thursday's debate; this is one issue where he doesn't really gain by politically differentiating himself from the president, except perhaps with the Arab vote in Michigan which seems poised to swing toward him in a big way.)
Interestingly, we saw a Kerry ad during the Eagles game, which I watched with him before coming back to the City. The ad flashed headlines about the NIE, the worsening violence in Iraq, and general predictions of things getting worse while Bush silently speaks in the corner. Then it cuts to Kerry, speaking outside, smiling broadly, and outlines his (very insubstantial, I'll admit) plan for Iraq. But it worked for my dad: "That's it! That's what they need to do."
I will say that in the suburb where my mom lives, which was a strongly Republican community when I was growing up in the '80s, Kerry/Edwards signs seemed to outnumber Bush/Cheney signs about four to one. Those Philadelphia suburbs will be crucial to the state, and hence the election, so I was a bit heartened by this admittedly super-unscientific data point. Even so, these two (also pretty unscientific) conversations convinced me that Kerry both still has an opportunity, and still has a very long way to go to win folks over. Thursday's debate will be hugely important.