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ELECTION 2004 / THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry's Vision Not Clear, Analysts Say

The Democrat let his opponents define him to voters long before he sharpened his critique of Bush, experts think.

November 04, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Sen. John F. Kerry had nearly all the ingredients to mount a successful challenge to President Bush: a tepid economy, an unpopular war plagued by setbacks, and a fiercely motivated Democratic base.

But, in the end, political analysts and party strategists agree that the Massachusetts senator was missing one key element: a boldly rendered portrayal of himself and his vision for the country.

Counseled by aides who believed that Bush would be done in by his unpopularity and who advised the Democrat to run an upbeat campaign of reassurance, Kerry failed to fend off the Republicans' relentless assault on his character. Nor was he able to overcome the Bush campaign juggernaut.

"Their great failure early on -- from the day the primaries ended through the summer -- is that they allowed Bush to define them," said Democratic communications consultant Jon Haber.

By the time Kerry developed a unifying frame for his critique of the president -- that all of Bush's choices were marked by bad judgment -- it was already mid-September.

"We didn't have a consistent attack strategy on Bush until pretty late in the campaign," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who did not work on Kerry's bid.

The president's reelection campaign was unhesitating, and methodically built its case against his challenger with unrelenting, biting attacks. From the moment the Republicans hit the airwaves last spring, they pressed the argument that Kerry would be too irresolute as president to keep the country safe.

Time after time, they spotlighted his often-confusing statements about the Iraq war and portrayed the senator as someone who swayed in the political winds.

The line of attack dominated the GOP's $183-million television ad spending. Coming at a time of war, it proved to be a devastating critique.

"At the base of it, it really was a fear campaign," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.

The doubts Bush sowed about Kerry's leadership, along with an ardent wooing of his conservative base, helped the president outmatch him by driving up his margin of support among rural and swing voters.

Convinced that Kerry's time as a Navy lieutenant would work as a talisman against charges that he was weak on defense, his campaign never provided a broader sense of Kerry's approach toward national security or a deeper look at his biography, political experts said. That left him vulnerable when his service record was muddied by attacks from fellow veterans.

Kerry had touted his military service during the Democratic primaries, then countered the Republican offensive by stepping up his references to Vietnam once the general election campaign began. The Democrat surrounded himself with emblems from that time, campaigning with his former Swift boat crewmates, meeting local veterans and dropping frequent references to his Mekong Delta patrols.

As it turned out, Kerry's Vietnam service "was actually a disadvantage in one way, because we thought it never could be pierced," Haber said.

In retrospect, both the promise and the peril facing Kerry's presidential bid were already apparent on a single day last spring.

On March 16, the senator won Illinois' Democratic primary and announced that he had secured the remaining delegates he needed to become his party's nominee -- capping a speedy primary season that party leaders heralded as a sign of historic unity among Democrats.

The same day, Kerry uttered a sentence that he could not shake for the rest of the campaign.

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," he told about 150 people assembled for a town hall meeting at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., referring to his vote on a supplemental budget to fund operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kerry was attempting to explain his support for an earlier version of the measure that would have paid for the wartime expenditures by rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy.

But the president's reelection campaign seized on Kerry's comment about the $87-billion vote as a sign of his indecisive character. The campaign lost no time in splicing it into a television spot.

Bush advertising director Mark McKinnon called the statement the campaign's "iconic moment."

"It framed the race the way we wanted it framed, and he did it for us," McKinnon said.

In the months that followed, Kerry gave his rival more fodder as he tried to explain his position on the Iraq war. The senator -- who voted to give Bush authorization to use force against Saddam Hussein in October 2002, but then later denounced the president's handling of the war -- found himself repeatedly tripped up by his own clarifications.

During a news conference at the Grand Canyon in early August, he exasperated Democratic allies when he said he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to invade, even after the U.S. was unable to locate weapons of mass destruction.

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