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Professor: Debates critical in ’08 Analysis

Expert says blunder from either camp may cost ticket the presidency in November.

The upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates could be the most important and influential ones since the 1980 Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan contest, according to a political science professor and political pollster.

G. Terry Madonna spent an hour Monday afternoon discussing the battle between Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which he called “one of the most peculiar and idiosyncratic presidential races I’ve ever covered.”

During the conference call with state political reporters, Madonna said it seemed at times like Obama would run away with the contest. But factors including race, attacks he received months ago from primary election opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton, and McCain’s vice presidential selection have kept the race close.

With six weeks to go before Election Day, it’s a toss-up.

Madonna said the series of three presidential debates – the first on Friday night at the University of Mississippi – and one vice presidential debate could make or break a candidate’s hopes.

“I think a shabby debate performance from either of the candidates, any of the four, could be costly. Neither side can afford a major mistake or major blunder,” Madonna, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said.

But the race is only tight, in his estimation, because of lingering questions regarding Obama. He said Obama’s race, thin resume and past comments such as his April remark that some rural voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” are likely keeping the race close.

It was Clinton who used those words against Obama as she campaigned in Pennsylvania during the primary season. The New York senator’s attacks on Obama, coupled with his choosing Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware as his running mate, have caused a rift in the Democratic Party and have given McCain the chance to pick up some Clinton supporters.

“If Sen. Obama put Sen .Clinton on the ticket ... it would have probably cemented Sen. Obama winning the presidency,” Madonna said.

Madonna said race might play the biggest role in the election.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a factor,” he said. If Obama loses by one or two points in these swing states, he said, “I don’t know that you can necessarily rule out that race wasn’t at fault.”

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll conducted with Stanford University and released Saturday, shows how wide a gap remains between whites and blacks. The survey of 2,227 adults shows one-third of white Democrats hold negative views of blacks. The poll suggests racial prejudice could cost Obama up to 6 percentage points this fall. That’s significant considering that when President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry in 2004, the margin was 2.4 percent.

On its surface, Madonna said, that should have been the Democratic candidate’s election to lose. There are plenty of reasons to support that stance.

In 2006, the party took control of Congress. In Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, of Scranton, defeated incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum and four House seats switched from Republican to Democratic including the 10th District, where Democrat Chris Carney, of Dimock Township, defeated Don Sherwood of Tunkhannock Township.

According to The AP, since 2004, when Bush barely lost the state to Kerry, the Democratic advantage in party registration over the GOP has swelled to more than 1 million -- including 100,000 voters who have joined the party since the state’s April primary. No Republican presidential candidate has won the Keystone State – or Lackawanna or Luzerne counties -- since the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Madonna said he doesn’t see Lackawanna or Luzerne going to McCain, but the state is another matter.

Factor in the electorate’s apparent mood for change in the midst of a struggling economy, the lingering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and ethics violations by some members of Congress, and the Democrats seemed ready to strengthen their grip in Washington.

But then came the bitter primary and fallout within the Democratic Party. As Obama and Clinton supporters sparred, McCain gained momentum by garnering enough delegates to secure the GOP nomination in March, three full months before Obama had enough to secure his party’s nomination.

And then came Sarah.

McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s to be his running mate catapulted him into a neck-and-neck race with Obama, according to many polls, and has invigorated his campaign. Palin’s selection has energized the Republican conservative, religious base, taken the exclusive “change” mantle away from Obama, and redirected some media attention away from the Democratic slate.

Madonna said these factors make for an interesting election, the results of which he can’t predict with confidence. He said things can change “each news cycle.”

That makes the upcoming debates all the more important.

“I think this year’s debates might well be decisive because of how close it is,” Madonna said. “These debates might actually be as important as the Reagan/Carter, (John F.) Kennedy/(Richard M.) Nixon debates.”

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