The anti-Kerry campaign

Robert Novak
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Posted: Aug 30, 2004 12:00 AM

 NEW YORK -- On the eve of the Republican National Convention, one of the party's foremost leaders from the South was asked about George W. Bush's chances in November. He replied, in a moment of rare candor: "If this campaign is about Kerry, Bush will win the election. If this campaign is about Bush, he will win my state." That is, the GOP must make sure the focus is on Sen. John Kerry to avoid being reduced to the solid Republican South -- and a lost election.

 That is no insult to President Bush, who this year has faced and weathered one political mishap after another, along with a Democratic opposition fiercely determined to remove him from office. Rather, the Southern leader's formulation signifies the realization in Republican ranks that they have dodged a bullet. Kerry had the opportunity to open a formidable lead against an incumbent president, and he failed.

 Tom Rath, the New Hampshire Republican leader who is one of the nation's shrewdest political observers, told me: "I don't think any candidate has ever experienced a worse month of August since (Michael) Dukakis (in 1988)" -- when that earlier Massachusetts Democratic nominee dissipated a double-digit lead. Rath contends the Democratic nominee in the last month has given the GOP an inestimable gift. The Republican challenge for its four days at Madison Square Garden is to simultaneously present a kinder, gentler face to the nation while still pounding away at Kerry.

 The assessment of what has been going on the last four weeks is much the same in both parties. By stressing his professions of military valor in Vietnam, Kerry opened the door to an examination of his questionable performance both during and after his four months of combat. His campaign was slow and then ineffective in its response, got off message, and finally switched from offense to defense.

 Repeated Kerry blunders have benefited grateful Republicans. His statement that he would still vote for war in Iraq even with his current knowledge undercut a major emotional support base for him. Sending wheelchair-bound former Sen. Max Cleland to the Texas desert to be turned away at the gates of Bush's ranch was foolish. So was his predictably ineffective challenge for Bush to engage him in a weekly debate.

 Bush in the end will agree to debates, though impending negotiations may result in only two encounters rather than the three customary in recent years. The call for weekly debates, which was brushed off by a routine Bush campaign press release, had been predicted by the president's political aides. The Kerry campaign book, a pattern developed during three decades of him seeking office, is well known but not respected by Republican opponents.

 Kerry's lackluster performance has lifted Republican morale, which had been sagging going into the Democratic convention a month ago. Like the Democrats, the Republicans have set aside their serious doctrinal disputes for the sake of a united presidential front. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans permitted a semblance of contention over the platform. But it was only a semblance.

 Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, serving on the platform committee for the first time, was unbelieving when he read in the White House-approved draft the opening line of the education plank: "Public education is the foundation of civic society." What about faith and family? Yet, as a loyal Republican, Barbour helped hold the line that the White House desired for this language (with the slight modification that "the foundation" was changed to "a foundation").

 When I relayed to Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie complaints by conservative activists that the White House was "running a railroad" in imposing platform discipline, he replied that Barbour was "the conductor." Another staunch conservative -- Colorado Gov. Bill Owens -- was similarly resigned to performing any platform tasks that the White House wanted.

 These Republicans were determined to avoid a real platform fight or a fight about anything at the New York convention. They intend to showcase the party's most attractive and glamorous faces. President Bush's acceptance speech is supposed to set an agenda for the second term. But the party's strategists also are determined that this convention keep John Kerry in the cross hairs.