The euphoria that Democrats felt after John Kerry's Boston convention has faded, obliterated by a furious August offensive from the GOP. After spending the month leading up to the Republicans' New York conclave on the defensive over Vietnam and Iraq, the Democrat watched George W. Bush deliver a strong Sept. 2 address that moved the numbers. Thanks to his mini-bounce, the President now holds a 7-point lead among likely voters in the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. But while history shows that many post-convention spurts are ephemeral, Kerry has reacted by hitting the panic button -- a step that seems unwarranted with seven weeks to go in a race against a polarizing incumbent.
In a series of actions reminiscent of Al Gore's 2000 campaign, Kerry is frantically adding to a top-heavy staff, launching roundhouse attacks on his foe, and trying to shift the focus from his alleged character flaws to "it's the economy, stupid." Meantime, he's being bombarded with advice from Dems -- who want a sharper message but have doubts about the messenger.
Kerry's bind is real. But it's by no means fatal. Like all campaigns, this one is really a series of large engagements, with the most important yet to be fought. The first big battle was the summer air war, an ad blitz in battleground states. Aided by independent "527" committees, Kerry fought Bush to a draw on spending and established himself as a credible candidate. But Bush, by pounding away at Kerry's alleged fondness for flip-flopping, sowed doubts about his challenger's character. Slight edge, Bush.
The President won a clear victory in the second encounter -- the month-long duel of the political conventions. While Kerry used his pageant to focus almost exclusively on service in the Vietnam War, Bush scored a trifecta. He reestablished his compassionate conservative bona fides, reached back to his reformist roots for a second-term agenda, and bolstered his image as a strong leader in the global war on terror. Big advantage, Bush.
The next key face-off -- and the decisive one -- will come as soon as Sept. 30 when the first Bush-Kerry debate is set to air in Miami. Given the unpopularity of the Iraq war and Bush's 51% disapproval rating on the economy, Kerry has an opportunity to regain lost ground if he can make a coherent case for a return to a more traditional foreign policy and expanded health insurance coverage.
The conventional wisdom is that Bush, with his sly, folksy style, will show Kerry to be an insincere, double-talking Washington insider. But if Kerry ever gets focused, he could win the duel on points. Then he could roll into October with a head of steam -- and count on the Democrats' ground organization to push him to a victory on Nov. 2.
Today, that looks like a long shot, thanks to a Bush search-and-destroy strategy that is making Kerry less acceptable to key voting blocs. According to Gallup, Bush has erased a 9-point pre-convention Kerry lead among independents, and now scores 44% to 43%, with 8% leaning toward Ralph Nader. Over-65 voters, who backed Kerry by four percentage points, now prefer Bush by 49% to 47%, with Nader at 1%. What about the $30,000-$50,000 a year wage-earners that Kerry has targeted? Before New York, they favored him by 3 percentage points. Now they go for Bush, 52% to 41%.
Bush's spurt in the polls is also threatening an electoral-state edge that Kerry held all summer. Pollster John Zogby finds that the President gained ground in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Arizona. It's hard to see how Kerry can prevail without Ohio and Pennsylvania unless he somehow wrests Florida from Bush. Kerry has lost his July lead in the hurricane-battered Sunshine State, and the race there is now dead even.
Small wonder, then, that Kerry's inbox is piling up with helpful hints. But he ought to proceed cautiously, since many ideas forged in the grip of panic have a way of backfiring. Among them:
THE GIVE 'EM ZELL STRATEGY. Reacting to a Kerry-slamming convention speech by renegade Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia, many Dems want their champion to unleash a searing counterattack on everything from Bush's service in the Air National Guard to his Administration's fumbled occupation of Iraq. While this would make liberals feel better, many Americans revere the Presidency and won't take kindly to a slashing exchange. If Kerry veers into Bob Dole-style "stop lying about my record" bitterness, he will end up a net loser. The right course is to offer concrete ideas for fixing the Iraq mess -- big-picture stuff, not minor nits over occupation mechanics -- while avoiding personal attacks. Kerry needs to explain clearly, for instance, whether he thinks we now have enough troops on the ground or too few, and how he forsees getting to the point where they can be considerably reduced.
SHUFFLING STAFF. Reacting to advice from former President Bill Clinton, Kerry has signed up platoons of Clintonites for a new rapid-response unit. But the newcomers might not work in harmony with Kerry's current crew, led by strategist Bob Shrum and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. The new recruits are feisty but are mistaken if they think that grafting Clinton's '92 campaign strategy onto Kerry's bid will succeed. Even on his best day, Kerry can't match Big Bill's charisma. Rather than vacillating between the stay-the-course camp and the Clinton Reduxers, he should pick one course and follow it instead of meandering. On the road, Bush practices relentless message discipline. Kerry, by contrast, is constantly straying off-message and free-associating. Democratic strategists say he needs to find a way to take the fight to Bush in a few clear and incisive phrases. And when he takes a position, he must stick with it.
BACK TO THE ECONOMY. Sensing that Bush has turned the campaign into a debate on terrorism, Democrats want Kerry to talk more about jobs, jobs, jobs. But jobs are coming back, even in some of the Rust Belt states that Kerry is targeting. The Democrat's best issue is the complex set of social pressures known as the middle-class squeeze, but that can't be his only issue. National security is too big to be ignored. Voters want to know how he would extricate the U.S. from the Iraq mess and step up the war on al Qaeda.
Clearly, Kerry has dug himself into a huge hole, and Bush is pounding him deeper with sledgehammer blows over character. That has upped the stakes in the debates, which are likely to be far more important with late-deciders than the earlier skirmishes of Campaign '04. A solid debater, Kerry still has time to shake off his swoon and emerge as the Comeback Lieutenant. But time for late heroics is growing short.
By Lee Walczak & Richard S. Dunham