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‘Swift’ vs. ‘Smear’ Leaves Race Even. It’s Time for Substance

Neither the Swift boat attack on Democrat John Kerry nor Kerry’s classic counter-punch against President Bush — crying “Smear!” — has decisively altered the presidential race. So it’s time to get back to serious business — to wit, the future of America.

According to the raft of polls published last week, Bush goes into his convention with a slight national edge over Kerry, but a slight deficit in battleground states — and a requirement that he show the country why he deserves to be re-elected.

[IMGCAP(1)] Bush political guru Karl Rove told Fox News that on Thursday night Bush will unveil a “positive and bold and optimistic agenda for his second term,” but the White House is maintaining iron discipline in not revealing details.

Those details had better be good. Three of the polls released last week — by the Los Angeles Times, Battleground and NBC/Wall Street Journal — all indicated that only a minority of voters (46 percent or 47 percent) thinks Bush deserves to be returned to office, while 49 percent or 50 percent say he does not.

The L.A. Times poll found that, by 54 percent to 43 percent, voters want a “new direction for the country.” But Kerry picked up support from just four-fifths of such voters.

Bush’s average approval rating in the five big polls out last week was 50 percent, slightly below the rating for August of recent presidents who’ve been re-elected, but well above the ratings for those who’ve been defeated.

A Fox News state-by-state tally shows that Bush goes into his convention trailing Kerry in electoral votes, 258-280. But that margin is narrower than it was the previous week, when Kerry led in states with 320 electoral votes.

The attack against Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth surely was a net negative for Kerry, though probably not a huge one, because it raised questions about one of the certainties about him — his war-hero status — and because it diverted from his efforts to focus on health care and the economy.

The Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of voters believe that Kerry is definitely or probably telling the truth about his military service — certainly a decline from what the public would have said after the Democratic convention, where his heroism was made out to be a principal qualification for the presidency.

The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed that only 36 percent of voters think Kerry was completely honest in describing his Vietnam service, while 35 percent said he exaggerated his exploits and 13 percent said he lied about it.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center found that, among veterans, Kerry’s favorable-unfavorable ratings have changed only marginally since the Democratic convention, from 43 percent to 41 percent positive to 42 percent to 44 percent negative, but also found that veterans favor Bush as commander in chief, 56 percent to 38 percent.

On the merits, I don’t think the Swift boat veterans have come anywhere near proving the case that Kerry didn’t deserve his Vietnam medals, although they do suggest that Kerry got out of Vietnam as fast as he could to pursue a political career back in the United States based on opposition to the war.

The bottom line is that he deserves credit for putting himself in harm’s way, which many of his generation didn’t — including Bush — but that he’s wildly overplayed four months of combat service 35 years ago into a qualification for being commander in chief today.

Under attack from enemy Swift boat vets, the Kerry campaign responded belatedly but vociferously, resorting to its classic ploy of declaring that Kerry was being “smeared” by Bush. As Kerry pollster Mark Mellman told USA Today, “the vast majority of Americans understand that this smear against John Kerry is in fact untrue. They hold President Bush responsible for it.”

But no evidence of coordination between the veterans’ group and the Bush campaign has emerged. The fact that the Swift boat vets’ 527 committee shared funders, a lawyer and volunteer veterans adviser with the Bush campaign in no way amounts to illegal coordination, any more than tight ties between Democratic operatives and Bush-bashing 527s and America Coming Together prove coordination on that side.

A Republican pollster who’s worked against Mellman in past campaigns said, “This is classic Mellman strategy. He sets up a predicate that anything negative said about his candidate is a ‘smear,’ then screams it when you challenge his candidate’s record. And it gives his campaign permission to say anything negative he wants about you.”

Mellman told me “it’s a gross exaggeration” to say that he’s managing Kerry strategy, but the record certainly indicates that Kerry has been forecasting “smears” by Bush since as far back as January.

In fact, the invective hurled at Bush by Democrats has been harsher than that thrown at Kerry. Former Vice President Al Gore said that Bush “betrayed the country” by invading Iraq. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe has called Bush a “draft-dodger.”

Ardent Kerry backer Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) charged that Bush planned the Iraq war to help GOP candidates in 2002. Kerry has said that Bush “deceived” the country to get into the war. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has said that Bush is “unpatriotic.”

By contrast, the Bush-Cheney campaign charges that Kerry would raise taxes on everyone (an exaggeration) and that his national security votes disqualify him to be commander in chief are tame stuff, given that Kerry has repeatedly referred to a “Republican Attack Machine.”

The press has largely bought into the notion that the two campaigns have been at least equally negative. But voters believe that Bush has been more so. In the Gallup poll voters said, by 48 percent to 42 percent, that Bush has been unfair to Kerry, while the respondents said, 43 percent to 50 percent, that Kerry had been unfair to Bush.

Bush and Kerry have every right to criticize each others’ record and program. There’ll be a lot of criticism of Kerry in New York. But Bush’s main task is to make a positive case for himself — preferably, with lots of substance.

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