For Bush, Bad News Is Bad News

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 25, 2004

Here's George W. Bush's problem. How does a president win re-election when all the news the voters are seeing is bad?

Polls show the president running even or slightly ahead of Senator John Kerry. But bad news is piling up like mounds of trash in a garbage strike, and that's never good for an incumbent.

The war in Iraq is a mind-numbing tragedy with no end in sight. Dozens of Iraqi army recruits were slaughtered Saturday in one of the deadliest attacks yet against the Iraqi security forces. Yesterday an American diplomat was killed in a mortar attack near the Baghdad airport.

The latest horrific video to come out of the war zone shows the kidnapped British-Iraqi aid worker, Margaret Hassan, trembling, weeping and begging for her life. "Please help me," she says. "This might be my last hours."

American troops have fought valiantly, but cracks in their resolve are beginning to show. "This is Vietnam," said Daniel Planalp, a 21-year-old Marine corporal from San Diego who was quoted in yesterday's New York Times. "I don't even know why we're over here fighting."

Here at home the stock market has tanked, in part because of record-high oil prices. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at its low for the year on Friday as world oil prices streaked ever higher. The cost of oil has jumped more than 75 percent in the past year. With the weather turning colder, the attention of homeowners - many of them voters - is being drawn to the price of home heating oil. What they're seeing is not pretty.

The Energy Department expects heating oil bills to increase nearly 30 percent this year, and that may be a conservative estimate. Thermostats across the country are heading down, down, down.

Republican campaign officials are worried about the dearth of good news. The flu vaccine shortage has led to price-gouging and long lines of sick and elderly patients, some of them on the verge of panic. Last week we learned that the index of leading economic indicators had moved lower in September, the fourth successive monthly decline, which could be an indication of a slowdown in economic growth.

The lead stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post on Friday were both about Iraq - and both were disheartening. The Times said senior American officials were assembling new information about the increasingly deadly Iraqi insurgency that showed "it has significantly more fighters and far greater financial resources than had been estimated."

The Post wrote that, according to a U.S.-financed poll, leaders of Iraq's religious parties are becoming the most popular politicians in the country, an extremely ominous development in the view of the Bush administration.

These are all stories with the potential to influence voters, and they are not being offset by other, more positive developments. The result has been high anxiety levels among Republican operatives.

"If you're asking me if there's a perfect storm of bad news occurring, the answer is no," said a G.O.P. campaign strategist, who asked not to be identified. "If you're asking if I'd like a little rosier scenario to be played out on the front pages and the nightly news, the answer of course would be yes."

Unable to counter the bad news with stories of major successes, the Bush campaign has turned almost exclusively to the so-called war against terror. The message in a nutshell: be very afraid.

A Bush campaign commercial released a few days ago shows wolves advancing menacingly toward the camera. A voice in the ad says, "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

At the same time, the Republican Party is doing what it can in key states to block as many Democratic votes as possible. Party officials have mounted a huge organized effort to challenge - some would say intimidate - voters in states like Ohio and Florida, in a bid to offset the effects of huge voter registration drives and a potentially heavy turnout of voters opposed to Mr. Bush and his policies.

Election officials in Ohio said they'd never seen such a large drive mounted to challenge voters on Election Day.

Voter suppression is a reprehensible practice. It's a bullet aimed at the very heart of democracy. But the G.O.P. evidently considers it an essential strategy in an environment with so little positive news.