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Archive for Sunday, September 19, 2004

Kerry struggling to regain momentum

September 19, 2004

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October is in our sights, and the two important teams from Massachusetts are confounding the experts. It's the Red Sox baseball club, not the Kerry presidential campaign, that's supposed to be in its pre-autumn swoon.

But that's not the case. Sen. John F. Kerry is running against an incumbent presiding over an uncertain economy and a controversial war, and still Kerry is struggling. Not only hasn't he clinched the race, he's falling from contention. What gives?

Part of it is the unusual nature of the economy and the war. The economy's not stuck in recession and it's not roaring into recovery. It's doing a little of each, making it hard for economists to explain what's happening, and making it harder still for the Kerry campaign to exploit the worries that ordinarily come with bad economic times.

Then there's the war. It's too new to have produced war fatigue among the voters, but old enough to have produced plenty of skepticism. And just below the surface is the nagging, and worrying, notion that this war is part of a bigger international problem that President Bush hasn't addressed and Sen. Kerry hasn't articulated.

The result is discomfort, but maybe not enough to topple an incumbent. The result is uncertainty, but maybe too much to swap leaders in mid-struggle.

So part of the Kerry problem is context. George W. Bush profited in 2000 because it was the right time for the Republicans to nominate a Texas governor whose most appealing attribute was that he had the best chance to deny the Democrats a third consecutive term in the White House. He may profit in 2004 because the public is too befuddled over what this war and this economy mean to make a change.

But Kerry's problems at the end of September aren't only in his stars. Some of them may be in himself.

The president's foreign policy may not be to all voters' tastes, but at least all voters know what it is. His campaign can be summarized in five words, first made popular in an entirely different context by Louise Day Hicks, the fiery Boston opponent to forced school busing: You know where I stand. The nature of that stand, particularly the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, can be debated. That the president knows his own mind cannot be debated.

Here's a way to measure, in your own neighborhood, the Kerry difficulty: Ask a few dozen people, including partisan Democrats and Kerry donors, to describe in a sentence or two the senator's Iraq policy. You're likely to get a few sentence shards, some squirms and a couple of false starts followed by a request to try again. Do-overs are a signal that a campaign has to start over.

But it's not only the articulation gap, curious as it is in a candidate who is far more articulate than his rival and who had no problem articulating his views when he was in his early 20s opposing the Vietnam War in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Some campaigns project strength (Ronald Reagan in 1980), some project weakness (Jimmy Carter in 1980), some project chaos (Bob Dole in 1996). Kerry's is a campaign that seems to be floundering -- on the basics, on the issues, in the polls. American presidential campaigns are ridiculous spectacles in every regard except for the only one that matters: They give the voters a sense of what the candidate's White House might look like.

That's why Kerry is in such a surprising position today. The public is watching his campaign get sucker-punched by Bush and his allies and not responding swiftly or adroitly enough.

The twist in 2004 is that the Republicans are using the way Kerry is campaigning -- making him look like a nattering nabob of nuancing -- to paint a picture of how he might approach problems in the Oval Office. In short: flounder from Boston.

A prime example occurred midweek. Right there in the heart of enemy territory -- the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at once the most literate, most conservative and most indispensable page in American newspapers today -- there appeared a piece titled "My Economic Policy," by John Kerry himself. Read it and you can see why the editors of the Journal must have been delighted to publish it. The piece had more hedges than an English garden.

Can Kerry recover? Of course he can. He was buried toward the back of the Democratic pack only a year ago and now is the nominee. He knows how to fade, to be sure, but he also knows how to come back into sharp relief.

Besides, any candidate who can drop nearly a dozen points in a week can recover nearly a dozen points in a week, as long as the week you're talking about isn't after the end of the World Series.

But all the time in the world won't salvage Kerry unless he can do precisely what so many of his aides ridicule Bush for being able to do: Make simple declarative sentences that set forth his ideas, his ideals and his identity.

-- David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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