As President Bush and Sen. John Kerry enter the final week of a deadlocked race for the White House, the mood at their campaign rallies, the sound of their messages and the images in their television ads underscore a starkly different closing argument to voters.
Both candidates have been trading unrelenting attacks for months, but Bush has turned up the volume on his critique, belittling Kerry as ill-suited to protect the nation. Kerry continues to offer sharp criticism, but his remarks are now infused with a positive vision as he strives to show what his Democratic administration would look like.
In the final eight days of the race, two distinct tones have emerged as Bush and Kerry try to win over voters in fewer than a dozen battleground states. The president devotes much of his time to matters of terrorism and security, hoping to appeal to his Republican core, while Kerry has attempted to reach beyond his Democratic base, speaking of faith and principles in unusually personal terms.
Ads hint at strategies
Simply turning on a television set in Florida, where the race appears to be as close as anywhere, offers a window into the strategic thinking of the campaigns.
A Bush commercial on Monday afternoon showed a pack of wolves circling through a forest and ominously questions whether Kerry can defend America from a dangerous world. The next ad showed Kerry looking straight into the camera, declaring: "I believe our future belongs to freedom, not to fear."
When Bush barnstormed through four Florida cities last weekend on a Marine helicopter, taking full advantage of the military's powerful trappings, he predicted a dark scenario for the country if his opponent were elected. One day later, Kerry attempted to sound a brighter note toward the future, barely mentioning the president in one marquee speech in Miami.
The contrasting messages seemed to do precisely what the campaigns had in mind: inspire their respective party bases with the added possibility of winning an undecided voter along the way.
Evelyn Goodman paid careful attention to the visits by both candidates and said the GOP "doomsday" predictions disgusted her, declaring: "The American people have been manipulated by fear."
"This sense of insecurity is not really there. I think it's been false for political purposes, so the Republicans can have control," said Goodman, a retired Miami resident who is supporting Kerry. "That's how they control people, through fear, not through hope."
Tom Hmurcik said he appreciates the president's projection of strength. He stood in awe of Bush's dramatic entrance at a rally on a baseball diamond in Ft. Myers, exclaiming after the speech: "Everything was unbelievably orchestrated. Did you see the helicopters?"
"My only grandson and I can rest easily every night knowing that George Bush is the president," said Hmurcik, a real estate agent from Estero, a town south of Ft. Myers.
As former President Bill Clinton made his first appearance on the fall campaign trail with Kerry on Monday, he urged voters not to be swayed by the message of fear.
"One of Clinton's Laws of Politics is this," he told a rally in Philadelphia before arriving in Miami. "If one candidate is trying to scare you and the other one is trying to get you to think, if one candidate is appealing to your fears and the other one is appealing to your hopes, you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope."
Security at heart of Bush bid
What Democrats call fear, Republicans call strength and security, which is the cornerstone of Bush's re-election bid.
The president campaigned Monday with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who reminded audiences of how Bush led the nation after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also has agreed to appear at the president's side.
Republican strategists think above all else that the issue of strength and security will keep voters on their side. Despite daily reports of fresh violence or problems in Iraq, campaign officials think the war has taken a back seat to larger concerns over domestic security.
"This is part of the president continuing to clarify the choices for the American people as we get closer to Election Day," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We can't achieve progress and all the other issues if we don't first address our security. And this is the highest priority for this nation."
The sharp contrasts that Bush is drawing with Kerry will give way in the final few days of the campaign to a 60-second television commercial in which the president will make a personal appeal to voters about his leadership and character. But for now, Bush is playing his trump card--the war on terror--and he's playing it hard.
Some Republican advisers had hoped that the president could have turned positive long before this point in the campaign, but as Kerry has improved his standing in the polls, it has become impossible for Bush to do so.
"The negativity is a product of the closeness of the campaign," said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who has written extensively about negative attacks in campaigns. "If all of the sudden Kerry starts to go entirely positive or Bush does, that's a sign that their polls show them leading."
`The future' counters `the past'
Kerry has spent the final days of the campaign delivering policy addresses on Iraq, energy independence, science and technology, among other things, in a bid to persuade undecided voters to support him.
Mike McCurry, a senior adviser to Kerry, said a key distinction for voters is "who's arguing about the future and who's arguing about the past." McCurry said Bush hasn't advocated "a single new thing he'd advance in his second term," adding that he thinks Americans will see the president as "angry and increasingly puny as he attacks."
Still, Democrats concede that fear is likely one of the reasons that Kerry has struggled to increase his margin among women, which is a key concern for the campaign. To offset the gains Bush has among men, strategists think Kerry needs to bring more women to his side in the final week.
"Campaigns invest millions of dollars in focus groups and polling. They know that fear is a potent issue," said Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist who studies fear's effect on a person's psyche. "Fear is a stronger emotion than hope."
Tribune national correspondents Mark Silva, traveling with the Bush campaign, and Jill Zuckman, traveling with the Kerry campaign, contributed to this reportCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times