WASHINGTON -- To begin his final full week campaigning for the presidency last Monday, John Kerry abandoned previous plans and seized on a single case of missing explosives in Iraq. Unusual though that seems, the Democratic presidential nominee devoted valuable time to this obscure story for the next three days -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- until Osama bin Laden?s video changed the subject. This tells much about both Sen. Kerry and the presidential campaign of 2004.
Kerry?s focus last week on missing explosives and his neglect of traditional Democratic philosophy might imply this issue connected with the electorate and boosted him against President Bush. But there is no evidence Kerry?s course helped at all. Rather, associates say it reflects Kerry?s passion to convince fellow Americans he is qualified as commander-in-chief.
I contacted several Democrats who have criticized Kerry privately to me in the past. They shrugged off Kerry?s obsession with the explosives. They confirmed that the senator is regarded inside the party as largely irrelevant to the election of 2004. This is an election about George W. Bush. Democratic leaders talk a lot about how their ?ground game? -- getting out their voters -- will elect Kerry Tuesday, and seem uninterested in what Kerry has to say.
What the candidate had to say Monday was shaped by outsiders opposed to Bush?s re-election. The allegation that ?highly explosive materials? had been looted because of ?lack of security? was developed by two essentially anti-Bush organizations: the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology and International Atomic Energy Agency. The story was broken eight days from Election Day by The New York Times and CBS?s ?60 Minutes,? neither of them remotely pro-Bush.
A missing 377 tons of explosives might look insignificant when compared with hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions discovered and destroyed by coalition forces in Iraq. This potential campaign issue?s most serious defect is that nobody is sure what happened to the explosives. There is no proof they were looted, and they may have been carted away by Saddam Hussein?s troops before the invasion.
Nevertheless, Kerry chose to personally treat this as an ?October surprise.? He became oblivious to past Democratic denials of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or their connections with terrorism. On Monday in Dover, N.H., Kerry said: ?Terrorists could use the munitions to kill our troops, our people, blow up airports and level buildings.? On Tuesday in Green Bay, Wis., he declared: ?The explosives are missing, unaccounted for, and could be in the hands of terrorists -- used to attack our troops or our people.?
The Bush camp was surprised when Kerry and his surrogates sounded this theme for four full days, eliminating the candidate?s planned ?closing arguments.? After two days, Republican activists grumbled the president had not responded. The reason was astonishment by Bush strategists that the Kerry campaign would continue on this path through the campaign?s last week.
Except for a small bounce on Monday, many polls indicated the explosives issue had no effect on Kerry?s fortunes. Surveys concluded Friday showed Kerry no stronger than he was a week earlier or perhaps a little weaker. As much as journalists (and particularly cable television news) loved the story, it was passing over the heads of voters.
Republican pollster Ed Goeas at the end of last week showed that the 37 percent of voters who regard terrorism and Iraq as the most important issues support Bush over Kerry, 62 percent to 33 percent. But among the 33 percent who see jobs and the economy as most important, Kerry is favored over Bush by 64 percent to 30 percent. Kerry may have been trying to convert the unconverted in concentrating on missing explosives, or it may just be a matter of personal preference of what the senator likes to talk about.
In any event, what John Kerry says seems removed from the Democratic master plan to send George W. Bush back to Texas. Few Democratic politicians think Kerry has proved a good campaigner, and obsessing for four days over missing explosives supports that judgment. What counts for Democrats is fulfillment of the ground game to bring previous non-voters to polling places Tuesday.