A Stronger Kerry Forces Bush to Make a Compelling Case

Ronald Brownstein

Los Angeles Times

August 2, 2004

ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Hope is as perishable in presidential campaigns as in baseball. The glow of July often dims by October, a lesson that John F. Kerry, a longtime fan of the beloved but bedeviled Boston Red Sox, should remember better than most.

So it may prove ephemeral, but Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, rolled out of their convention over the weekend exuding optimism. The best measure of their mood was their message and their itinerary. Both sent the same signal: The Democrats are determined to play on Republican turf.

That was the unrelenting theme of last week's convention. One after another, speakers lauded Kerry's values and integrity, and above all, his strength. The convention presented Kerry not just as an acceptable alternative as commander in chief but an improvement — as strong as President Bush, but wiser, as former President Clinton suggested.

Listening to the procession of generals and Vietnam War veterans at the podium, Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio saw a revealing calculation in Kerry's choice of emphasis.

To Fabrizio, the Massachusetts senator was telling the White House that he believed his hold was already so great over voters primarily concerned about the economy and other domestic issues that he could focus most of his fire on Bush's strongest point: his management of the war on terrorism.

"I thought Kerry's speech was a very offensive-minded speech," said Fabrizio, the pollster for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in 1996. "They made it clear they were going to play on once-hallowed Republican ground — terrorism, national security and foreign affairs."

Kerry made his case effectively enough, Fabrizio predicted, that voters would feel more confident in him as a leader, particularly on the critical post-9/11 question of his qualifications as commander in chief. Indeed, a Newsweek poll released Saturday showed rising voter faith in Kerry's ability to handle an international crisis.

Another Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, saw similar gains after Kerry's speech with a focus group of 20 undecided Ohio voters he assembled for MSNBC. Some Democrats felt that Luntz had stacked the deck because 14 of the 20 participants had voted for Bush in 2000. But that only made the group's positive response to the speech more striking.

"I'm shocked that a Democrat would do as well as Kerry did on national security," Luntz said a few minutes after the speech. "This is a brand-new campaign. In certain ways, Bush is now the underdog."

That's premature. But Kerry's campaign continues to behave as if it believes it has the wind at its back.

On the morning after his acceptance speech, Kerry began a two-week coast-to-coast bus and train tour that largely targets the small towns and rural communities where Bush amassed his greatest margins in 2000. On Saturday, Kerry's rallies in Greensburg, Pa.; Wheeling, W.Va.; and Zanesville took him to three counties that all voted for Bush last time. It's no exaggeration to say Kerry is aiming precisely at the places that elected Bush — a point dramatized when Kerry's motorcade nearly crossed paths with Bush's in Republican-leaning western Pennsylvania late Saturday afternoon.

Small-town and rural America isn't an easy fit for Kerry. Though Kerry touted himself as a hunter and fisherman, many voters in the places he visited over the weekend probably feel more culturally compatible with Bush. Yet doubts about the economy and disillusionment with the war in Iraq have cracked open the door for the Democrat.

The opportunity was evident in the crowds that filled small-town squares and riverside parks Saturday to hear Kerry, even under a leaden, rainy, sky. "I just want a change," said Sally Rector, a Bush voter from 2000 who attended a packed Kerry rally Saturday along the gently rolling Ohio River in Wheeling.

Bush chose a similar place Friday in southwest Missouri for his first appearance after the Democratic National Convention. He focused his message heavily on social issues, suggesting that Kerry was out of touch with heartland values on concerns such as abortion and gay rights. On Saturday, he painted Kerry as a time-server in the Senate.

And Vice President Dick Cheney has already resumed the assaults on Kerry's national security voting record that featured so prominently in the Bush campaign's arguments before the Democrats gathered.

Tarnishing some of Kerry's post-convention shine is obviously part of any Bush recovery plan. But there is a growing consensus in both parties that this campaign is unlikely to replicate 1988, when George H.W. Bush won mostly by convincing many voters that his opponent, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, was not a plausible president.

Largely because of Kerry's combat experience, it is going to be more difficult for this Bush to disqualify his rival. And after a Democratic convention that bolted so much more armor on Kerry's credentials as a wartime leader, the prospect that the GOP can render Kerry flatly unacceptable to a majority of Americans is even more remote.

Does that mean Bush is doomed? No. This isn't 1980 or 1992, when the incumbent was swept away by an irresistible demand for change. But Bush is facing what most polls suggest is a narrow majority now inclined to change direction, and a challenger who has greatly strengthened his credibility as an alternative.

Maybe Bush will still find a set of arguments that causes Kerry to crumble as Dukakis did. Kerry might commit a major blunder.

But more likely the president will win a second term only if he can reverse the demand for change by restoring faith in his own leadership and direction.

In that, Bush needs cooperation from events. He may also need a different focus.

For months, his campaign has mostly stressed the risks of change. After Kerry's strong performance last week, Bush's greatest need now is to find a compelling case for continuity.

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Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times' Web site at latimes.com/brownstein