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The Nation | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

With Ball in Bush's Court, Can He Keep the Bounce Going?

September 06, 2004|Ronald Brownstein

NEW YORK — Can President Bush survive good fortune better than Sen. John F. Kerry did?

A spring downpour of bad news for the administration gave Kerry, the Democratic nominee, a small but consistent lead over Bush in most polls through the Democratic National Convention in late July. But in August, Bush narrowed or eliminated that lead, depending on the survey.

Now after last week's Republican convention, Bush has opened an advantage of his own, slim in some surveys but as much as double digits in a new Time magazine poll. The first question for the campaign's last stretch: Can Bush maintain a lead more effectively than Kerry did?

The answer may turn largely on events in the economy and Iraq that neither campaign can control. But Kerry's slide in August shows how much the contenders' campaign decisions can also affect the dynamic.

Nervous Democrats believe three key Kerry decisions helped Bush to recover. Many fret that Kerry didn't respond fast enough when his Vietnam War record came under assault from the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group with strong Republican ties. Others complain that Kerry placed too much emphasis on his biography and too little on his agenda at the Democratic convention. Others say the convention didn't deliver a strong and clear indictment of Bush's record.

These second and third complaints are actually reflections of the same underlying strategic calculation. Since spring, the Kerry campaign has concluded that a narrow majority of Americans are ready to change direction and need more to be reassured that Kerry is an acceptable alternative than be persuaded to fire Bush.

For months, plenty of polling evidence has indicated that at least a slim majority prefers change. A narrow majority of voters has consistently said it wants a new policy direction. The president's job approval rating, for most of this year, was stuck just below 50%. For an incumbent, that's like being stuck with your head just below water.

But, in practice, Kerry's decision to emphasize reassurance over persuasion ceded control of the day-to-day campaign debate to Bush. Because Kerry wasn't drawing sharp contrasts most days, Bush's attacks on the Democrat's record and decisiveness have dominated the news.

Further, because Kerry has spent so much time trying to buff his credentials as commander in chief, he didn't drive a sharp message on domestic issues like the economy; in a recent Times survey, less than 40% of voters said they had a firm idea of his plans for accelerating growth.

The Swift ad attacks exploited these vulnerabilities. The sustained debate over Kerry's Vietnam service made August primarily a referendum on him, especially since his approach didn't allow him to keep the spotlight on Bush's performance.

The result: By late August, a survey in The Times had Kerry failing to win over about one-fifth of voters who said they wanted the country to move in a new policy direction. Since Bush was winning virtually everyone who liked his policy agenda, those defections were enough to nudge the president back into the lead.

Now, the forceful case for continuity that Bush offered at his convention has compounded Kerry's problem. The Democrat was already failing to harvest enough of the constituency for change. Now he faces the additional risk that the change constituency itself will shrink after Bush's energetic effort to remind voters of what they liked about his record.

If Bush can lastingly convince a majority that his approach has made the country better off, there's not much Kerry can do to recover -- presidents simply don't lose when most Americans believe they have done a good job. But it's not yet clear that Bush is in such a commanding position. Even the post-convention Time survey showed the country divided almost exactly in half on his handling of the economy and Iraq. And because Bush is so polarizing, even some in his own camp believe his support naturally rests right about 50%.

To repeat: More than anything the candidates do, events may determine whether Bush tips above or below that line. But the race's reversal of fortune has made it clear that Kerry can't win without making a case for change as effective as the arguments for four more years -- strength, resolve, a steady hand against terrorism -- that the GOP stressed last week.

The campaign's next big events are the presidential debates that begin Sept. 30. But most experts agree Kerry has to shift the momentum before then, just as Bush did in the weeks leading into his convention.

Bush climbed off the mat largely because he (and the Swift boat veterans supporting him) dented the pillar of Kerry's convention, the argument that he would be a strong and decisive wartime leader. To regain his footing, Kerry probably has to turn against Bush the central argument of the GOP convention: the portrayal of the president as a tenacious leader as committed to his course as Ronald Reagan or Winston Churchill.

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