Six Months Out, Bush and Kerry Are Weak and Weaker

Posted May 5, 2004 at 2:02pm

With less than six months remaining until the presidential election, the contest between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is looking like a fight between two battered prizefighters, each with a bull’s-eye painted on his chin.

The president looks weak. Kerry looks weaker. [IMGCAP(1)]

Even admirers of the president don’t go out of their way to tout his great intellect, intellectual curiosity, impressive speaking skills and well-thought-out Iraq policy in explaining their support for him.

Rather, they say he knows what he thinks, sticks to his decisions, is a decent man, stands for the right things and reflects the values of most Americans. They also like him personally. But even many of these supporters acknowledge that the president and his administration have not lived up to their hopes.

Luckily for the president, he and his party have an ace in the hole. It’s Kerry.

The Massachusetts Senator’s greatest achievement during the first couple of months of this year wasn’t his victory in Iowa or New Hampshire, but his ability to convince his fellow Democrats that he was the most “electable” Democrat in the race. In hindsight, what were Democrats thinking?

True, compared to Howard Dean, almost any warm-blooded Democrat looked comparatively electable. But, Kerry’s legislative record and Massachusetts roots have made him a sitting duck for Republicans, as many of us had expected.

GOP strategists have had such a plethora of riches that they have been unable to decide whether to brand the Senator a liberal or a flip-flopper, so they decided to do both. And so far, they have succeeded.

This has created a problem for Kerry. If he moves to the right to try to prove to voters outside the Northeast and the West Coast that he isn’t a traditional liberal, he feeds the flip-flopper characterization. If he stays true to his political roots, he gets backed into the liberal box.

Of course, the Senator’s style — as every commentator on the planet has already noted — has not been an asset. Polls tell us that he doesn’t connect with voters, and his Brahmin vibes feed stereotypes that his critics merely encourage.

But while voters haven’t yet warmed to the Senator, some of the increasing Democratic panic about Kerry’s campaign is overblown.

It is still, after all, only early May, and the Massachusetts Democrat — weak though he may seem — remains locked in an even race against the incumbent president. This contest is far from over.

Republicans mock Kerry’s aides for suggesting that voters still don’t know Kerry, even after all of the primaries and all of the advertising, both negative and positive. But the election isn’t going to be held next week or next month, and Kerry’s team still has time to introduce (or, more likely, reintroduce) their man to the public.

Yes, Kerry’s campaign will have to spend resources painting a positive picture of the Senator rather than simply attacking the president, but so what? The public’s view of president Bush depends much more on daily events outside of the president’s control — or Kerry’s control — than on Kerry’s attack ads.

It is simply premature to say that voters don’t like John Kerry and will never warm to him. Skeptics should consider how one well-publicized kiss by Al Gore changed the then-vice president’s buzz. (No I’m not suggesting that Kerry plant a big one on wife Teresa’s mouth in public. She’d probably smack him if he did.)

On the surface, it appears that neither Bush nor Kerry can win in November. But don’t jump to the conclusion that I am now about to pick Ralph Nader as the next president.

Given the rash of books that have criticized the president’s performance, the budget deficit, the daily fatalities in Iraq and the nation’s other problems and challenges, it might seem hard to believe that Bush can win a second term.

And if Kerry is the answer for the Democrats, the question is far too scary even to consider. The Senator’s inability to open up a 10-point lead over Bush, given the president’s problems, is mind-boggling.

The broad contours of this election — a nation polarized into roughly equal pro-Bush and anti-Bush camps — are likely to keep the contest quite close, at least for the next few months.

Kerry’s best issue — the economy in general and jobs in particular — is now starting to look iffy for him, which is why everyone must pay close attention to the new jobs numbers that are about to be released.

If concerns about the economy do recede, then Kerry needs to depend on Iraq fatigue to expand his appeal. But while that may happen between now and November, a majority of Americans — in spite of a rash of bad news from the region — so far seem to be sticking with Bush on the war.

History suggests that each campaign will experience a few more highs and lows between now and Election Day. That’s surely enough reason for the Kerry and Bush teams not to panic — and not to become overconfident, either.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.