President Bush has risen in polls after taking the calculated risk to elevate security issues over pocketbook concerns in the campaign's home stretch. But strategists in both parties said that approach leaves him with acute vulnerabilities in case of an economic shock, a terrorist attack or heavy attention to a bloody October in Iraq.
Administration officials disclosed plans yesterday that show the many ways Bush will try to emphasize his role as commander in chief. He will interrupt his swing-state travel in just over a week to go before cameras at the United Nations with the interim president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. Two days later, Bush will welcome Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to the Rose Garden.
The week after that is the scheduled start of the campaign debates. Bush's negotiators plan to insist that the first debate, to be devoted to domestic issues, will include homeland security, according to outside presidential advisers.
The exposure for Bush was clear as security spiraled out of control in Baghdad yesterday, with insurgents shelling the heart of the city with mortar and rocket barrages just days after U.S. military deaths in Iraq passed 1,000 and the Pentagon admitted that rebels control swaths of central Iraq. With violence flaring in urban areas last month, the United States suffered its highest combat injury toll for any month since the war began.
The Bush-Cheney campaign's focus on safety and security pervaded the Republican National Convention, where prime-time speakers repeatedly portrayed Bush as a steady and steely commander in the war on terrorism, with little attention to domestic issues.
Tad Devine, a senior adviser to the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry, said Bush's campaign is "intent on moving the voters to them" by constantly stressing the president's image instead of "meeting voters where they are" by discussing the escalating costs of college, medical insurance and gasoline.
Republicans do not deny that, and it may be working. Bush emerged from Madison Square Garden with a lead in polls that his aides believe has solidified at around three or four percentage points, just outside the margin of error of most polls. Democrats complain that Bush appears to be defying political gravity by scoring his best reelection ratings while the job market remains tepid, the deficit is rising and Iraq is in chaos.
Even the polls that show Bush's reelection chances rising have also shown that fewer than half of respondents think the country is headed in the right direction. Strategists in both parties said that that shows the power of the president's image -- even among people who disagree with him on key issues, or who think he has not done a good job with some important problems.
"The basic structure of public opinion is working against Bush, but his campaign is very effective at using the incumbency," said Jim Jordan, a former Kerry campaign manager who is now with America Coming Together, a labor-backed group spending millions in swing states. "He's still working against a very significant feeling of anger and anxiety. People want change in really, truly fundamental ways. Kerry simply needs to begin to effectively make the case that he will be that agent of change."
Matthew Dowd, the Bush-Cheney campaign's chief strategist, said Bush appears to be settling into a lead because people ultimately make their choice for president based on the candidates' attributes.
"In a time like this, where people have concerns about terrorism but they also have concerns about the economy, they're looking for a strong and decisive leader and they've concluded that John Kerry is not that person and George Bush is," Dowd said. "That's why you've seen movement on all issues towards us. We're even with [Kerry] on health care. We were down 17 points on health care."
Bush plans campaign appearances focused on health care in Michigan today and in Minnesota on Thursday. But aides said his main strategy is to convince voters that he has a plan, rather than to unveil the nuts and bolts of how he would accomplish his goals, which he waited until the convention to articulate.
On health care, according to presidential advisers, Bush's major message will be that Kerry would have to raise taxes to pay for centralized, government-driven care.
Aides said no immediately upcoming presidential event is focused on the economy, although the president will mention jobs in virtually every speech. Some elected Republican officials in swing states said it was important for Bush to balance his messages about security and the economy.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said the president needs to be careful not to run into the mistake made by his father, President George H.W. Bush, by suggesting " 'life is good, don't you understand?' -- when some people aren't feeling that." Several crucial parts of Pennsylvania, which Bush lost in 2000 but is optimistic about picking up this election, have yet to recover from manufacturing cutbacks.
"This is one area where the economic message may matter," Santorum said. "I've talked to the president about this. Between now and the election, I don't think there's any guarantee that the emphasis won't shift at least somewhat to more of the economic themes. He has to be out in front of that, and I think he recognizes that."
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) said Bush has done a good job of acknowledging during his frequent visits that the Buckeye State has not recovered as fast as others and praised his convention announcement of "opportunity zones" to steer federal aid to communities suffering from job losses.
"Ohioans are concerned, as well, about our security -- we've had suspected or potential terrorists arrested a couple of times," Taft said. "We want our president to be strong in leading the battle against terrorism. That's what the convention highlighted, probably more than any other single factor, and that's one reason that the president is doing better in Ohio."