The campaign always reflects the candidate

Posted: Sep 20, 2004 12:00 AM

 As this is written, John Kerry is behind in the polls. In 11 post-Republican convention polls compiled by, George W. Bush leads John Kerry by an average of 49 percent to 44 percent, with 2 percent for Ralph Nader. Bush's lead is as high as 14 points (among Gallup's likely voters), while Kerry leads in only one poll, by 1 point (Harris Interactive).

Many polling experts are skeptical of Gallup's and Harris' methods. But take their numbers out, and it's still 49 to 44. Even the Kerry campaign concedes that its candidate is behind by about 2 percent. The Bush campaign would say that it is a little more.

 But the bad news for Kerry doesn't stop at the top line. When you examine responses to other poll questions, you find no obvious lines of opinion that work in Kerry's favor. On qualities like "strong leadership" and "says what he believes," he is far behind Bush -- the attempt to present Kerry at his convention as a strong leader doesn't seem to have worked. On caring about people like you, usually a strong point for Democrats, he has no particular advantage. On traditional Democratic issues -- education, the economy -- he runs about even with Bush. On health care, he does somewhat better, and he has been pushing his health care plan on the stump. But it's not clear that that's a high salience issue this year.

 Kerry, with his expanding campaign staff, is trying to do what candidates in his position usually do: If you can't emphasize things on which voters agree with you, try to change the way they see what's happening out there.

 Before a grudgingly polite National Guard Association, Kerry argued that the Bush administration's record in Iraq is one of mistakes and failures. He can point to increasing violence and casualties. But Bush can respond that the terrorists are just trying to affect our elections and shake our resolve -- he will have a forum this week when Iraqi interim president Ayad Allawi visits Washington. And last week's Pew poll showed that voters are aware of increasing casualties but have not reduced their support of Bush's efforts in Iraq. Throughout, Kerry faces the problem he has caused himself by the wildly different stands he's taken on Iraq.

 The Kerry camp is also trying to change perceptions by flashing the anti-Bush anger that it was so careful to conceal at the Democratic convention. The Democratic National Committee has been running ads questioning Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, even using footage from Dan Rather's "60 Minutes II" story that relied on what are almost universally regarded as forged documents (Rather concedes they're questionable). The Kerry campaign is running ads attacking Halliburton and charging that Dick Cheney has been profiting from the company's work in Iraq. These will undoubtedly make Michael Moore Democrats happy. But will they convince voters in the middle that Bush and Cheney are dishonest?

 September state polls are suggesting that the battleground may be changing. States both sides counted as battleground based on the 2000 returns -- Arizona, Missouri -- seem safe for Bush, while states solidly for Al Gore may now be in play. Polls show Bush narrowly behind or, in one case, ahead in New Jersey and narrowly behind in New York and Illinois -- all states Gore carried by double digits. The Kerry campaign says, plausibly, that it's skeptical about those results and vows, wisely in my view, that it won't spend money in those states in any case. But these results could be evidence that suburban women this year are more interested in safety from terrorism than in choice on abortion. Note that Laura Bush last week made one appearance in New Jersey and another in a Pennsylvania town just across the river.

The odds are still against a smooth flight path for the Bush campaign. There will be presidential and vice presidential debates; there will probably be bad daily cycles for both sides; Old Media remains hostile to Bush, and despite Rather's astonishing performance, is always quick to run stories that might hurt him. Events could move a decisive number of voters away from Bush and toward Kerry. But the contrast between the two campaigns is apparent.

 The Bush campaign is executing with confidence and verve a game plan it set out long ago. The Kerry campaign has been regrouping and lurching from one emphasis to another. It is proof of the old political saying: The campaign always reflects the candidate.