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Phase One of the 2004 presidential campaign is over and the Democrats have defined themselves up and President Bush, down. Now, it’s Bush’s turn to do some redefining.

While the conventional wisdom is that Bush is in dicey condition going into the long general election campaign, I think he’s in surprisingly good shape, considering the abuse he’s taken from Democrats and the bad news he’s endured, some of it earned. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s true that Bush’s approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency, but 14 public polls conducted in February still showed an average approval of 50 percent to 43 percent disapproval.

And, despite all the favorable attention that Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) has garnered during his phenomenal run of primary victories, the head-to-head race between him and Bush is dead even.

The latest Pew Research Center poll, conducted Feb. 24-29, shows Kerry with a slight edge over Bush, 48 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, just outside the margin of error. But the poll showed that 29 percent of voters could change their minds about whom to support, of whom 13 percent tilt toward Bush and 10 percent to Kerry, with just 6 percent totally undecided.

The swing voters overwhelmingly support Bush on foreign policy and social issues, but not on the economy.

An earlier Pew survey in mid-February showed that the primary season definitely has been good for Democrats and bad for Bush.

The poll showed that Bush and Kerry tied at 47 percent apiece in a trial heat, but in January Bush led by 52-41. Among independents, Bush led by 52-37 in January, but Kerry was ahead 51-41 six weeks later.

When Pew asked for one-word descriptions of Bush, equal percentages of voters gave negative and positive responses, a dramatic shift from last May, when positives outstripped negatives by 52 percent to 37 percent.

The most frequently used negative word for Bush was “liar,” which was not even mentioned in the May 2003 survey. That shows that voters have been absorbing the Democrats’ key definition of Bush.

They’ve accused him of lying, misleading and deceiving the country particularly about the reasons for getting into the war in Iraq, but the charge extends to economic and social policy as well, as in promises of job creation and funding for education.

Bush has been hurt by failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, ballooning federal deficits and weak job reports. Moreover, the White House has stumbled in its handling of controversies surrounding Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service and the leak of the identity of a CIA agent.

The Feb. 17 Gallup poll showed that, by 55 percent to 42 percent, voters still consider Bush to be “honest and trustworthy,” but that’s significantly down from previous ratings in the 70s.

The same poll showed that voters consider Kerry marginally more honest and trustworthy, by a 61percent to 23 percent margin.

Bush rated only slightly higher as a “strong and decisive leader” — 65 percent to Kerry’s 59 percent.

Such polls demonstrate that Kerry has emerged from the primary process not merely unscarred by his Democratic rivals, but enhanced — and on the offensive against Bush.

On the policy level and the personal level, the public has heard little except criticism of Bush — even on his two key domestic initiatives, the No Child Left Behind education program and the Medicare prescription drug plan.

Last week’s Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed that voters favor Democrats over Republicans on handling the economy by an 11 point margin; on education, by 14 points and health care, by 21 points.

Part of the Democrats’ success so far — emphasis, so far — has been in defining which issues are front and center in the public’s attention.

The Fox poll showed that the public will judge the candidates on the economy first, then health care and Medicare, then education and only after that on homeland security, Social Security, terrorism, gay marriage, taxes, Iraq and foreign policy.

After Bush declared himself on “Meet the Press” to be a “war president,” Kerry responded by defining himself as “first of all, a jobs president, as a health care president, as an education president and also an environmental president,” giving short shrift to the war on terrorism.

Until today, when the Bush campaign’s first ads begin running, almost the entire job of defining Kerry and defending Bush has been left to Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and his research department, which have assailed primarily Kerry’s defense record, but also his consistency on taxes and gay marriage.

Bush has made only one reference to Kerry in a speech to Republican governors. That all changes now. Bush’s first ads, entirely positive, tout his own leadership, dedication to entrepreneurship and job growth, optimism and response to “tough times.” Ads rapping Kerry will come later.

Arguably, the Bush campaign waited too long in countering Democratic attacks, miscalculating that the Democrats’ nominee would emerge bruised and bleeding from the party’s nomination fight.

But, there’s plenty of time left for defining and redefining — five to six long months before the party conventions, during which the Bush campaign will spend $100 million and Democrats a lesser but still large amount. Then two months when the country will really be paying attention. The question is, can we all stand it?

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