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The presidential election could well be decided in the first televised debate next week, CNN senior political analyst David R. Gergen told more than 600 people at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo on Monday night.
Gergen, an adviser to former Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, shared observations about the election and anecdotes from his years in politics and journalism at the kick-off community dinner for the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo's 2013 United Jewish Fund Campaign.
"Mitt Romney has one more big chance, and that is the debates. The first debate [Oct. 3] has to be a game-changer. His problem is going to be that if he was ahead, all he would have to do is tie. But when you're behind against an incumbent president, you have to take it away from him," said Gergen, who told of running the debate preparation team for Reagan, whose debate performance helped him defeat President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
"It's possible to do, but Mitt Romney is frankly no Ronald Reagan," Gergen said. ". Reagan had a sense of humor and was extraordinary as a speaker."
Gergen gave President Obama a 70 percent chance of winning the election, pointing out how polls show him to be ahead with expanding margins in nearly every swing state. He said Obama's lead was a result of running a better campaign, defining Romney as an elitist and corporate raider before Romney defined himself, and using the Democratic convention to explain how Romney would govern the country after the former Massachusetts governor failed to do so at the Republican convention.
Gergen, a Southerner, said he voted for Obama in 2008 as "an act of redemption" for the country's legacy of racism but has been disappointed by the president's "domestic leadership."
"I think he's a better campaigner than he is president," Gergen said, "Now that may change, and I hope - for the country's sake and his sake - that he succeeds if there is a second term."
Gergen directs the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and he is author of "Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership, from Nixon to Clinton." In an interview the The Buffalo News, he also said:
. Bipartisanship is at an all-time low. "Things were as polarized on the surface during the Clinton administration as they are today," he said, "but underneath the combat, there was serious bipartisan work done across the aisle. We can't come anywhere close today. I think the polarization today is deeper and more dysfunctional."
. Republicans are likely to tack more to the right if Romney loses, and that would be a mistake. "I think the party is seen now by people in the middle as going too far to the right. This is a country increasingly dominated by minorities, and they can't be a majority party unless they make deeper inroads into both the Hispanic community and African-American community."
. The Clintons are riding high. "Bill Clinton is very, very popular, and so his wife [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton], of course. They have emerged as the giants of American politics. It's been really remarkable to see. Everyone is going to be waiting for Hillary in the next two years, including [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo."
The annual dinner also honored Jewish leaders Jordan A. Levy, Michael L. Joseph and Howard A. Zemsky - "innovators, entrepreneurs and Buffalo community builders" - with the Nathan Benderson Community Service Award, for dedication and commitment to the Jewish community and the community at large.
"We are thrilled to be honoring three of Buffalo's finest citizens, who have provided leadership and support for the Jewish community and have been leading citizens of greater Buffalo," said Michael D. Wise, executive director of the federation. "Our whole community is so much richer because of their leadership and vision for the Western New York area."
"No one in the history of our community has ever done more, in every way possible, for the Jewish people," Levy said of Nathan Benderson, the philanthropist and real estate magnate who died in April at age 94.

email: msommer@buffnews.com