George's friend Bill

Posted: Jun 24, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush's managers could hardly contain their delight over Bill Clinton's return the past week. While temporarily shoving John Kerry out of the spotlight, the former president recalled bad old days in talking about his personal misbehavior. For the first time, a best-selling new book might be helping President Bush's re-election prospects.

 The reappearance of a dysfunctional Clinton is one of many events breaking Bush's losing streak. The image of Sen. John McCain embracing the president, the first of several such appearances, exploded all notions of a dream Kerry-McCain Democratic ticket foolishly promoted in recent weeks. Most important, Sen. Kerry's favorability rating has declined as the Democratic nominee was pounded by Republican negative advertising.

 None of this means, to be sure, Bush will be re-elected or even is the current favorite. What it does mean is that the president has survived five weeks of unremitting bad news. Instead of a double-digit deficit that was predictable after all that Bush-bashing, the race is a virtual dead heat. External events, especially those in Iraq, will influence the relative handful of undecided voters in no more than 17 battleground states.

 This surely has not been the conventional wisdom inside the Washington Beltway. One Republican-oriented Washington consultant who is sympathetic to Bush two weeks ago sent his clients a confidential report that Kerry, in the opinion of the capital's insiders, had "won" the "Washington primary." That echoed the spin from the Democratic candidate's camp that he had won the "spring primary" and Bush's media blitz had failed.

 In fact, pragmatic evidence says the blitz succeeded. The Bush team, like most political pros (including Kerry's), are convinced of the effectiveness of negative advertising -- the more the better. In firing a negative barrage, a candidate always will reduce favorable ratings of the target even though it also will lower his own.

 Because the Republicans stigmatized Kerry as a liberal, a pessimist and an unprincipled opportunist, he has not benefited from Bush's time of troubles enough to jump into a commanding lead. Two polls reflect the change in favorable-unfavorable ratings for each candidate between mid-February (shortly after Kerry clinched the nomination) and mid-June. The Pew Research Center shows Kerry dropping 21 points and Bush dropping 2 points. Fox News shows reductions of 12 points for Kerry and 1 point for Bush.

 The bash-Kerry campaign benefited from the Democratic candidate's feckless courting of McCain, who emerged as the runaway favorite Republican of Democratic politicians and the liberal news media. Indeed, McCain could have been the first vice-presidential nominee since Lyndon B. Johnson to carry a ticket to victory. The problem was that McCain said no and meant no. McCain is a straight talker and told me several weeks ago -- unequivocally and in plain English -- he would not be Kerry's running mate.

 All that remained was for McCain and Bush, who have not betrayed great affection for each other, to embrace in front of television cameras. That finally was put together last Friday at Fort Lewis, Wash., when they publicly exchanged compliments. Bush campaign operatives promise that it will not be the last time they appear together.

 The frosting on the Republican cake was Bill Clinton's reappearance. While admitting the former president's ability to dominate any room that he enters, Democrats I talked to deny any lasting negative effect on Kerry's campaign. The problem is that it reminds voters of more than what Kerry calls "the very, very good years" under Clinton. The beginnings of the book tour have shown Clinton at his worst, blaming "my childhood" for his personal conduct as an adult and asserting that right-wingers targeted him because they "didn't have an enemy anymore" after the Berlin Wall fell.

 This presidential campaign will be rough for the next 18 weeks, with nobody able to predict the outcome. John Kerry will get a boost out of the Boston convention next month, and counts, as Al Gore did, on wiping out a stumbling Bush in the debates. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the Democrats lost a chance over the last four months to turn Bush's discomfiture into a substantial lead.