NEW YORK -- The soaring confidence that George W. Bush's political team takes into the final eight weeks of the campaign stems from more than belief its candidate is a vastly underestimated politician. President Bush's advisers cannot believe their good fortune of how badly John Kerry and his campaign have performed the past month. What's more, that assessment is shared by many Democrats outside the Kerry campaign.
The Republican National Convention here did everything intended, climaxed by President Bush's competent though overly long acceptance speech. But Bush's real advantage has been Kerry. At the Labor Day traditional campaign start, the Democratic candidate still seems undefined. In his latest about-face, he has gone into an attack mode, however blunted.
On the Republican convention's last day, word spread about Kerry's newest tactic: going to Springfield, Ohio, for a midnight rally targeting both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for missing combat in Vietnam. That puzzled the president's strategists, who figured Kerry would want to close the door on investigation of his own combat record. He instead delivered a glancing blow at Cheney's student draft deferments 40 years ago and then, in a meandering stump speech, drifted from health care to Iraq and back to health care. His late-night audience, in the picturesque Ohio town square, seemed anesthetized.
There never has been any doubt about Bush's tactics. Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and the rest of his campaign team believe in the efficacy of negative politics. Attacking the opponent early and often is actually recognized, however privately, by operatives of both parties as the way to win elections. That is why Kerry's recent behavior is puzzling, especially when compared with Bush's plan.
That plan was for Republican convention speakers preceding Bush to hit Kerry hard (a formula followed by everybody except Sen. John McCain). As intended, the president himself applied some licks to Kerry. Bush advisers were delighted by the tough anti-Kerry text that defecting Democratic Sen. Zell Miller prepared for his keynote address. Sen. George Allen, in charge of campaigns to keep the Republican Senate majority, called it the convention's best speech.