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WASHINGTON — In polling completed just as the Republican National Convention convened, the two candidates continued to run neck and neck. The result was a slight gain for President George W. Bush and a disappointment for his challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. (Kerry had gotten a bit of a bounce from the Democratic convention and was leading in early August.)

Besides advancing in overall numbers, Bush made headway on job-performance ratings. For example, his overall job rating again bounced up to the 50 percent mark — the bare minimum experts say is necessary for re-election.

Labor Day has been the traditional kick-off day for the election campaign. Obviously, this campaign has been different. It has been going full bore for more than six months — ever since Kerry wrapped up the Democratic nomination. But still, the Labor Day holiday is the last break before Election Day. It is a natural milepost on the way to decision.

Here is what Americans were thinking as they approached the holiday weekend.

Who would you vote for today?

* Bush-Dick Cheney: 48 percent.

* Kerry-John Edwards: 47 percent.

* Ralph Nader-Peter Camejo: 2 percent; and no opinion: 2 percent.

How do you rate Bush’s handling of these issues?

* The economy: 45 percent good, 52 percent bad, 3 percent no opinion.

* Iraq situation: 47 percent good, 51 percent bad, 2 percent no opinion.

* Education: 52 percent good, 43 percent bad, 5 percent no opinion.

* War on terrorism: 60 percent good, 37 percent bad, 3 percent no opinion.

* Health care: 39 percent good, 55 percent bad, 6 percent no opinion.

* Taxes: 49 percent good, 48 percent bad, 3 percent no opinion.

So nearly $400 million later, the race is a tossup. Half are for Kerry; half are for Bush. Four out of five likely voters tell pollsters that they have made up their mind on who they will vote for, while only 7 percent think they are likely to change their mind. That leaves a very narrow band of targets for the millions of dollars that is about to be spent to convince them how to vote.

“Debates? What debates?” That is the message I heard from Bush campaign managers during the convention. Reporters tried to pin down the top brass of the campaign on the question of whether Bush would engage Kerry in three debates that an independent commission on debates has planned.

With the end of the convention, the debate about the debates has heated up. The grand old man of interparty negotiations, James Baker III, was named as the chief representative of the president to plan the debates. Baker has done that for several Republican presidential candidates and is as slick with a negotiation as any man can get here on Earth.

The media believes that the president is not keen on debating. He is not thought to be comfortable in the debate atmosphere, as he is not respected for his skill with a fast repartee and glib remarks that mark a good debater. They presume he knows he will have to have at least one debate and will have Baker try to squeeze the program into a format that will give him an advantage.

But the Commission on Presidential Debates has other plans. The commission was self-appointed a couple of campaigns ago to provide a respectable bipartisan forum for the debates at a time when equal time provisions of the Federal Communications Commission were in place and the exclusion of third party and independent candidates from debates was a problem. It took over the task of planning and refereeing the debates from the League of Women Voters, which had promoted and executed the debates for several decades.

The commission has a five-debate schedule and a program all laid out, complete with specific locations and assigned moderators. The odds on this schedule being kept are low. Negotiations will begin this week.

I’ll bet that there will be no more than two Bush-Kerry debates and that they will both be in September. The Bush team wants to get the debates over in a hurry, just in case Bush needs time to recover from them.

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