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At the Moment, Bush’s Strategy Beats Kerry’s

From the beginning, the Bush and Kerry campaigns have been pursuing opposite strategies. Right now, it looks like Bush picked the right one. [IMGCAP(1)]

President Bush’s strategists conceived of the presidential race as a choice between two candidates. Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) people basically thought of it as a referendum on Bush.

At the Democratic convention in Boston, the Kerry campaign brimmed with confidence that the referendum basically had been held, that voters had decided against Bush and that all that Kerry had to do was make himself seem an acceptable alternative.

But either they didn’t deliver the goods in Boston — that’s the Bush view — or Kerry had a bad August, or both. Either way, it looks as though the race is what the Bush campaign planned: a choice in which voters are going to heed what they dislike about each candidate as much as what they like.

From the moment Kerry won the Democratic nomination in March, the Bush campaign has unloaded on him and his record in its advertising. Bush got a big assist in August from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which challenged the central theme of Kerry’s campaign — his Vietnam service as a qualification to be commander in chief.

In contrast, Kerry, while bitterly critical of Bush in speeches, has concentrated his ad money on positive messages touting his war service and proposals on health care and the economy.

The Kerry strategy seemed to be working until just prior to the Democratic National Convention in late July, when polls showed Bush’s approval ratings low and Kerry opening up a lead.

But Kerry got little or no lasting “bump” from his convention and as Republicans gathered in New York, the two candidates were neck-and-neck in national polls — evidence that voters had not rejected Bush after all. Also, Bush’s job approval ratings were rising and he was beating Kerry handily on whom the public trusted to run the war on terror.

In New York this week, Republicans are pursuing three tasks: put a previously missing gloss on Bush’s record, show how Bush is better than Kerry (and how Kerry is worse than Bush) and, on Thursday, finally watch Bush unveil his agenda for the next four years.

During the GOP convention’s first two days — only one of them nationally televised — speakers went stronger on Bush’s achievements than on Kerry-bashing, but the Wednesday night duo of Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) and Vice President Cheney was expected to even the balance.

On Monday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did Bush the favor of explaining his Iraq policy better than Bush has ever done for himself.

Even if Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did not actually possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the 2003 war, McCain said, the international sanctions regime against him was breaking down and eventually would have allowed Hussein to reacquire WMD and pass them along to terrorists.

McCain delivered only the most abstruse criticism of Kerry’s foreign policy. “We can’t make victory on the battlefield harder to achieve so that our diplomacy is easier to conduct,” he said, an apparent reference to Kerry’s oft-stated priority of enlisting allies before using force.

In a far more rousing speech, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani both lauded Bush’s leadership against terrorism and ridiculed Kerry’s tendency to change positions on key issues.

His best line of the night played off Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) theme that there are “two Americas.” “One is where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against exactly the same thing.”

Night two’s hero, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave a subtly effective reply to the Kerry charge that America is not “respected abroad” under Bush’s leadership.

Without referring to Kerry or Bush, he reminded the audience that all over the world, tens of millions of foreigners wish that they could emigrate to the United States, as Schwarzenegger did, and “fulfill their dreams.”

Like Giuliani, Schwarzenegger used humor rather than vitriol to jab Democrats, accusing them of being “economic girlie men” for being “pessimistic” about the economy.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign, says Kerry’s big mistake was in spending too much time at his convention revisiting the one subject voters were familiar with — Kerry’s war record — and not enough explaining where he would take the country.

While denying that was true, Kerry strategist Tad Devine told me that, starting this month, Kerry ads will show the candidate talking to the camera about health care and economics.

Devine said the Vietnam emphasis at the Boston convention was necessary because Kerry forces anticipated the Swift boat attack. “They threw their toughest punch at us, and we survived,” Devine said. “It’s better they did it in August than October,” he said, blaming Bush for the independently financed ads.

Devine claims the Kerry campaign is not changing its strategy, that voters in focus groups show they abhor negative advertising and that Kerry will “stay positive,” at least on the air.

Dowd, on the other hand, says the 50-50 race “makes it all the more important that we emphasize that this is a choice.”

Dowd says Bush’s 50 percent approval rating is unprecedented for an incumbent president at Labor Day — short of the mid-50s of presidents who’ve swept to election, but well above the 20s and 30s recorded by presidents who’ve been defeated.

The bottom line is that Bush is going to concentrate fire on Kerry’s Senate record, proposals and leadership ability. And if it’s done fairly, there’s nothing wrong with it.

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