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October 18, 2004

Congressman Sam Farr visits class, profs discuss Nov. 2 elections

By Jennifer McNulty

Democratic Congressman Sam Farr visited a UCSC politics course on Friday, talking shop and fielding questions from students before urging them to register and to vote.

Congressman Sam Farr speaks to a politics class Photo: Jennifer McNulty

“We’re trying to sell democracy all over the world, but the world questions whether we believe in our own system,” said Farr, who represents the 17th district in the House of Representatives.

Farr spent about 45 minutes with students in Politics 120A, Congress, the Presidency, and the Court, an upper-division class taught by politics professor Daniel Wirls. Farr then met with a few faculty members and campus officials, including Acting Chancellor Martin M. Chemers, before attending a student gathering at the Quarry.

As the Nov. 2 election nears, Wirls and fellow campus experts in U.S. politics agreed that the presidential debates had resuscitated Kerry’s candidacy.

“For Kerry, the debates were unbelievably valuable, because millions of Americans got to see him as basically an equal of the president,” said Wirls. “For (any) challenger, that’s terribly important. If Kerry has any chance of winning, it’s because of the debates.”

The greatest irony of the debates is how important they were despite rampant early skepticism about the highly structured format, observed Michael Brown, professor of politics and chair of the Politics Department.

“Before the debates, they were widely dismissed as a sham, with the media calling them ‘pseudo-debates’ and spoofing the 32-page memo that spelled out the rules,” said Brown. “But I actually think the debates turned out to be very informative. You really got to hear what the candidates had to say. You got to see two sharply delineated points of view.”

Analysts and public-opinion polls agreed that Kerry dominated all three face-offs, but Kerry’s strategy was different during the final confrontation, according to Brown. During the first two debates, Kerry “played to the center and was campaigning for undecided voters,” said Brown. By the third debate, Kerry was playing to the “base” of the Democratic Party.

“He was talking about the minimum wage, single women, taking a stand on Roe vs. Wade, and discussing jobs, health care, affirmative action, the inner cities, and poverty,” said Brown. “He was talking to women and African Americans, making sure the base is mobilized.”

President Bush shifted his strategy during the final debate, too, said Brown, backing away from the negative campaigning he’s been doing since early spring and emphasizing education in an attempt to reclaim the mantle of “compassionate conservative.”

Although negative campaigning drives down turnout, both Brown and Wirls predict voter turnout will be higher Nov. 2 than in recent elections.

“This is a campaign in which the divisions and stakes are drawing people in,” said Brown.

Both campaigns have waged energetic voter-registration drives and are preparing major get-out-the-vote efforts, which may prove decisive in a presidential race that remains too close to call, said Paul Ortiz, an assistant professor of community studies and a voting-rights expert.

“The debates transformed the campaign into a dead heat,” said Ortiz. “I think it will come down to registration, turnout, and who does a better job of getting out the vote.”

But Ortiz expressed deep concerns about the integrity and security of the U.S. electoral system.

“I’m afraid I agree with Jimmy Carter’s assessment: We’re heading toward a replay of 2000,” said Ortiz. “What I’m seeing is a pattern of election officials trying to suppress registration activity and purging the voting lists. Some of the stories are anecdotal, but the anecdotes are really starting to add up.”

As reports of intimidation and voter suppression come in from around the country, Ortiz noted that delegations of volunteers are organizing to keep an eye on the polls.

“We’re hearing about people going out to polling places to counter official voter suppression--activities like state trooper cars being parked at polling places,” said Ortiz. “If so, that might help.”

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