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.
Republican criticism of Miller was stylistic, not substantive. But when the usually amiable Georgian was told by friendly critics that he could have smiled a little more, he replied that he regarded the menace to his family posed by today's Democratic Party as no laughing matter. With Miller's former Democratic allies assailing him as "angry" and "harsh," Republicans did not join the criticism as they did when Pat Buchanan was demonized for his 1992 convention speech. Bush aides do not want Miller to be Buchananized.
This contrasts vividly with rigid censorship of anti-Bush rhetoric by Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill at the Democratic National Convention a month earlier (not excluding even Bill Clinton's speech). Kerry's passivity, enforced by Cahill, enraged former Clinton strategist James Carville. Kerry aides then blamed their candidate's troubles on public criticism by Carville, a lecturer and television personality who holds no party position. In the midst of the Republican convention, the entire Kerry high command descended on Manhattan to inform friendly journalists and Carville that their candidate was doing very well.
Kerry's strategists seemed uncertain whether he should follow custom and stay out of sight during the other party's national convention, but finally decided he could not. After windsurfing at Nantucket, Kerry addressed the American Legion convention in what had been billed as an attack on his Swift boat veteran detractors. Instead, he delivered a quiet critique of Iraq war policy, which was unenthusiastically received by the Legion. That was followed by Thursday night's speech in which Kerry attacked his opponents "who refused to serve" in Vietnam -- that is, Bush and Cheney.
A midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, is nothing like an acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden, but the unfair comparison was not flattering to Kerry. Bush delivered a conservative speech to a conservative party but also as a war president. After shocking his supporters earlier by saying he would still vote for Bush's war resolution, Kerry in Ohio Thursday night declared the president "misled America into Iraq." The Democratic nominee continues to define himself.
In response to queries by readers: My son, Alex Novak, is director of marketing for Regnery Publishing Inc., publisher of "Unfit for Command." He is 36 years old and has been employed at Regnery for six years, since receiving his MBA from the University of Maryland. He has had no connection with my reporting about "Unfit for Command," a best-selling book dealing with Sen. Kerry's war record whose news value is obvious. I plan to continue to pursue this story as developments warrant.