And what has happened politically as a result? You guessed it: President Bush has risen in the polls. The lesson to be learned is that Americans like stability more than well-intended urgency. They know danger lurks, but that doesn't mean they respond with more political support to those that officially warn them.
The essence of this is that the president isn't gaining steam from a manipulation of the terrorist alert system. He's found new life because the Kerry campaign has lost its message, and thus its earlier momentum. After completely mishandling the "Swift Boat" attack ads, Kerry now has failed to develop any semblance of a coherent campaign message. One minute he's trying to prove that he too can tackle terrorism. The next minute he's harping about jobs. His campaign is spinning like a top. It's close to spinning out of control.
All the while, Kerry's campaign strategists have been pinning their hopes on silliness like Bush's long-ago military records. Or on Kitty Kelley's arguably specious and conveniently timed unauthorized biography of the president. These things -- even if some of the mud sticks to the president -- simply don't matter to most voters.
In the end, the president hasn't needed terrorism scares or a national crisis to derail the Democratic nominee. The Kerry team is doing enough. They've all but ignored what could be real campaign currency -- the dead weight of a less-than-popular vice president, a still-sluggish economy, and a Bush domestic agenda that has moved in fits and starts when it moves at all. The Kerry campaign has fallen into the same double-hinged trap that defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. They are not only losing, they are starting to panic.
The Kerry team needs to raise a "code red" alert of its own. Either find a storyline and stick to it, or watch what were once battleground states start to melt away. And here's another tip: If the Department of Homeland Security does issue a heightened terror alert in the next seven weeks, don't accuse the White House of crying wolf to win votes. The public isn't buying it.
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