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In the Home Stretch, It’s Bush by a Neck

Times Staff Writer

President Bush appears to have won at least a modest surge from the Republican National Convention this week. But as the campaign shifts into high gear at its traditional Labor Day starting line, Bush also faces a new challenge: an angry, energized Kerry who said he was taking off the gloves and punching back.

The result, according to party strategists and independent political analysts, is a contest that remains fundamentally close, increasingly bitter and, ultimately, still unpredictable.

“We’re operating within a 4- to 5-point framework; the adjustments we’ll see will be small,” Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said. “I’d be happy with a 1-point lead.”

In the aftermath of the convention, which dominated the national stage with praise for Bush and scorn for Kerry, the Republican campaign is already enjoying a noticeable “bounce” in public opinion polls.

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The first poll released after the convention, conducted by Time magazine, found that 52% of likely voters said they intended to vote for Bush, against 41% for Kerry -- the widest lead for Bush in months. A similar poll conducted by the magazine before the convention had Bush barely ahead of Kerry in a statistical dead heat, 46% to 44%. The polls have a 4-point margin of error in either direction.

Pollsters warned that such surveys should be taken with a grain of salt; historically, a post-convention bounce usually subsides within three weeks.

Still, coming after several weeks of gradual deterioration in Kerry’s standing with undecided voters, the numbers confirmed that, at least for the moment, Bush had momentum on his side.

“Bush goes into the general election campaign with a little bit of wind behind him,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent opinion research group. “That doesn’t guarantee that it will take him all the way” to winning the election.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff said he too was skeptical about how big and durable Bush’s bounce was likely to be. But he noted that even a brief post-convention surge could boost a campaign in other ways.

“If multiple surveys show Bush improving, then the story line in the press will be that the convention -- and its attempts to raise concerns about Kerry -- worked,” he said.

“The Bush campaign has worked hard to make this a race about who’s prepared to be commander in chief,” he said. “The longer they can provoke a sustained discussion about doubts about Kerry on that score, that’s good” for Bush.

“Campaigns are about what question you want the election to be about,” he noted.

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Each side is trying to focus the nation’s attention on its opponent’s vulnerabilities.

The Bush campaign wants voters to worry about whether Kerry would be as tough and decisive as the incumbent in the continuing war on terrorism. But the Kerry campaign wants to talk about the aspects of Bush’s record that voters find most disappointing: the sluggish economy and the deficiencies of the nation’s healthcare system.

“The president comes to this election with his own serious character problem,” Kerry pollster Mark Mellman charged. “Voters do not believe he understands and cares about their problems.”

In other words, the campaign is increasingly focused not on the two candidates’ relative strengths, but on their weaknesses. The election may well come down to a question of which candidates’ flaws appear more troubling to voters when election day arrives.

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The Democrats’ effort to focus the campaign on the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s stewardship in domestic affairs is a traditional strategy. Any election in which an incumbent president seeks reelection is, in some measure, a referendum on his record.

But this year Republicans have enjoyed notable success in making the campaign a referendum on Kerry’s qualifications, as well -- through relentless attacks on his relatively liberal record on defense issues during 20 years in the Senate, as well as charges from a veterans’ group that the Democratic nominee didn’t deserve the medals he won in Vietnam and that his antiwar activities after his return hurt military morale.

Both campaigns have also sought to present positive agendas on a broad range of issues, but that debate has largely been crowded out by the more vivid arguments over weaknesses.

“From his standpoint, Kerry needs to get his message focused so the point of engagement in the debate is the economy and jobs,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on political communications. “He still hasn’t gotten that done.”

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On the other side, she said, Bush used his acceptance speech at the Republican convention to reassure voters that he does have a second-term agenda for the economy and other domestic issues, although most of his proposals were neither bold nor ground-breaking.

“Bush’s message was: ‘I have an agenda that has a lot of stuff in it,’ ” she said. “That came through clearly in the speech, although now he needs to reinforce it.”

But if each side’s negative message continues to drown out their efforts to present a positive agenda, both run a risk: they could alienate undecided “swing” voters, who often react against negative campaigning.

“There is definitely a danger for Bush if he pushes too far,” Kohut said.

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Bush’s top strategist, Karl Rove, has said he believes a key to the election is turning out Bush’s core conservative supporters in higher numbers, not winning over every swing voter.

“It’s a risky strategy,” Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, said last week.

The question now, as the Kerry campaign steps up its counterpunching, is whether he will begin to run the same risk.

When Kerry attacked Vice President Cheney by name on Thursday night for avoiding military service in Vietnam, “It was a change both in tone and strategy,” McInturff said. “Kerry had spent months trying to run a very different campaign. It looked like the kickoff to a new kind of campaign....

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“It isn’t just a battle of two candidates,” he said. “It’s a battle of whether American politics has shifted to a new [model] -- one of turning out your base instead of focusing on swing voters, the way we have for 40 years.”


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