It may be no accident that President Bush has spent much of his $60 million advertising barrage tearing down Sen. John F. Kerry.
He does not have much choice, say academic experts and media strategists in both parties, because as an incumbent at the center of a polarized electorate, he faces an uphill battle to sell himself.
The result is an unusual departure from the standard campaign dynamic in which both candidates tout themselves while aiming their ammunition at each other. To a striking degree, both Bush's ads and Kerry's ads are about Kerry.
This reflects a recognition in both camps that the Massachusetts Democrat is an undefined quantity, at least in many voters' minds, and that the election may turn on who successfully fills in the blanks. The president, who began his blitz in early March with upbeat talk, including from his wife, has largely abandoned that approach for attack spots in which an unseen narrator slams Kerry's record. The senator has largely abandoned his anti-Bush ads for warmer spots in which he and his wife speak to the camera.
Bush, in short, has disappeared from the air wars, except for the legally required shot in which he says he approves the latest message skewering Kerry.
"Ads about John Kerry, positive and negative, will have more impact than ads about George Bush, positive and negative," said Democratic media adviser Mandy Grunwald. "Everyone already knows what they think about George Bush. I don't think attack ads against him move undecided voters."
Republican media consultant Don Sipple, looking at Bush's spots, agrees. "Events in the real world are having much more effect on the president's standing than whatever advertising they're doing," he said.
Darrell West, a Brown University professor who studies advertising, said: "The Bush people certainly have a bigger opportunity criticizing Kerry than talking about themselves. People have had four years to reach a judgment about the president."
Little wonder, then, that Kerry has switched to biographical ads that stress his Vietnam service while the Bush team belittles Kerry by invoking the war on terrorism.
Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt described the aerial assault this way: "Kerry sailed through the Democratic primary process with little or no scrutiny. In order to make an informed judgment about whether Kerry is a suitable choice for president, voters need to have this information. It's the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts."
Kerry strategist Michael Donilon argued that Bush aides "have decided that the only way to win this election is to destroy John Kerry."
Against this backdrop, the debate over whether the Bush ads are distorting or exaggerating the senator's record assumes greater importance, especially given the unusual negativity this early in the campaign season.
The Bush commercials depict Kerry as a flip-flopper who wants to sock car owners with a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax, never met a weapons system he liked and is against body armor for U.S. troops. Over the past two months, the ads have charged that Kerry:
Plans "to raise taxes by at least $900 billion." The Democratic candidate has no such plan. His spending promises, especially on health care, exceed the revenue in his budget projections, but Kerry has said he would scale back new spending if necessary to reduce the federal deficit.