Candidates Find the Spotlight in This Race Is Best to Be Avoided

As Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush prepare this week for their second debate, it seems increasingly likely that the winner in their marathon duel for the White House will be the candidate who best keeps the focus on the other. Each man has tended to wilt in the spotlight.

The presidential race in August and September concentrated primarily on Kerry -- whether he was strong and steadfast enough to lead the country. That hasn’t been a pleasant experience for Democrats, who watched Bush establish a clear lead in the race.

One way to look at the last nine weeks -- roughly the period from the balloon drop at the Democratic National Convention in late July in Boston to the beginning of last week’s debate -- is that the country held a referendum on whether Kerry inspired confidence as a potential commander in chief.

Bush won that one.

The significance of last week’s debate was that the primary focus shifted from Kerry’s personal qualities to Bush’s performance as president. The change wasn’t absolute. Bush still pressed his case that Kerry was too weak and wavering to lead the nation in a time of war.

But in a debate devoted primarily to Iraq, the emphasis inevitably tilted toward Bush’s decisions and record. And Kerry did in the debate what he didn’t do at his party’s convention: He presented a clear and relentless case against the incumbent’s performance.


By now, it is accepted wisdom on both sides that Bush did not handle that challenge well. After some initial hesitation, he was strong and confident in his answers. But his irritation at Kerry’s aggressive criticism -- pursed lips, scowls, even an Al Gore-like sigh of frustration -- has become a centerpiece of post-debate discussion.

Polls taken after the debate found that picture of Bush surprised many voters, who are more accustomed to the confident and congenial chief executive they see in more scripted settings.

The images were bad enough that senior Republicans, gathering on a campaign conference call Friday, asked if anything in the debate agreement could prevent Democrats from splicing the cut-away shots of a perturbed Bush into an ad. (Apparently not: The Democratic National Committee released a greatest-hits video Friday.)

Are Bush’s scowls likely to turn the race? The danger for Bush is that the images will convince voters he is indignant when questioned or challenged. That could reinforce a weakness for the president in the polls: the sense that he’s too stubborn.

Insiders wouldn’t be surprised to see Kerry press that case further in this week’s debate; he signaled that thrust Saturday when he described Bush as “stubborn, out of touch and unwilling to change course.” That argument has always been the potential vulnerability in Bush’s promises of resolve.

It’s difficult to imagine, though, that Bush will cooperate by providing as irritated a performance as he delivered in the first debate. It shouldn’t be too hard for Bush to present a more attractive face by smiling more, displaying more respect for his opponent and poking some fun at himself.

The real issue isn’t whether Kerry can score points on Bush’s demeanor, it’s whether he can keep the race focused on Bush’s record and direction. Though Bush led Kerry comfortably in polls through September, surveys indicate that the country remains much more closely divided about the president’s performance.

Depending on the poll, Bush’s approval rating stands either just above or below 50%. Bush still receives strong marks for his handling of terrorism. But in a Times poll last week, a majority of those surveyed said they disapproved of his handling of both Iraq and the economy.

With violence in Iraq surging, the number of Americans who believe the war was not worth the cost has edged past 50% again, several recent surveys have shown. And in the Times poll, a 51% majority of likely voters said they believed the country needed to follow a different policy direction from the course Bush has set; among debate-watchers that number rose even higher, a follow-up survey found.

These results don’t mean Bush is doomed to lose a race centered on his record. Bush has improved his approval rating since spring. After his original justification (that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) collapsed, Bush has rebuilt support for the Iraq war by portraying it as a first step toward reducing the threat of terrorism by spreading democracy through the Middle East.

Even so, the post-debate polls suggest that a race centered on Bush’s performance, rather than Kerry’s personal qualities, is likely to be much closer than the one-sided contest surveys measured in September.

Since the Democratic convention, Bush in one sense has defied political gravity. Almost all political analysts agree that races involving an incumbent president turn primarily on the judgment about that incumbent. Yet Bush, with help from Democratic mistakes, has deflected concerns about his own performance by raising so many concerns about Kerry.

“Bush is still facing substantial doubts about the war in Iraq and his direction on the economy, yet because Kerry’s favorability is so low ... he was unable to convert those opportunities,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

It may be that even after his strong performance last week, too many voters have lost faith in Kerry to turn to him, even if they are ambivalent about Bush.

But the post-debate surveys indicate that Kerry began to resolve some of the doubts plaguing him -- primarily over his strength -- by challenging Bush so much more forcefully.

For two months, Bush has dominated the race mostly by discrediting Kerry as an alternative. But last week’s debate showed that with so many voters still uneasy about Bush’s direction, Kerry can strike a nerve when he says a vote for the president guarantees “more of the same.”

In the end, this race may turn on whether Americans see more risk in change -- or continuity.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at