After the three debates in the past fortnight salvaged John F. Kerry's presidential candidacy, it has become clear to tacticians in both parties that the Democrat, to borrow President Bush's famous phrase from the 2000 campaign, was misunderestimated.
The Bush team's ferocious advertising push in the spring and summer and the Republican convention were successful at defining Kerry as a vacillating opportunist who has no coherent policy on Iraq and is spineless on terrorism. But the strategy may have worked too well, pollsters and operatives say: By turning Kerry into a cartoon, the Bush campaign created such low expectations for the senator that he easily exceeded them in the debates.
"Leading up to the first debate, the Bush campaign very effectively defined John Kerry as a wishy-washy flip-flopper who never knew where he stood, and then they get on the stage and here's a John Kerry who differs from the perception," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.
Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) now with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said Bush had gone "over the top" in making Kerry seem ridiculous.
"It was a case of taking a caricature to such an extent and not realizing the caricature could be disassembled by the candidate himself in the debates," he said. "You would have expected a hybrid of Jane Fonda and Ted Kennedy would walk on stage. . . . People expected to see a left-wing, beaded radical."
Instead, viewers saw a Kerry who, if not dazzling and likable, was generally coherent and at times even forceful. And voters seemed pleasantly surprised. In the Washington Post tracking poll, the number of respondents viewing Kerry favorably jumped 12 percentage points between early September and this week; voters by 48 percent to 43 percent now view Kerry favorably, putting him in the same area as Bush, who is viewed favorably by 49 percent and unfavorably by 46 percent.
The number of people who think Kerry has taken a "clear stand" on the issues, although still low at 37 percent, is up 10 percentage points in less than three weeks.
The overnight change in perceptions of Kerry has reshaped the presidential race; the two candidates are in a dead heat, according to the poll, erasing a nine-point advantage Bush had in early September and also a perception that the race was all but over for the challenger.
Kerry surged even though Americans still do not perceive him as strong and decisive, indicating that even holding his own against Bush was enough to jog voters' views of him.
"People thought he was a candidate who couldn't put one foot in front of the other and didn't have a clear point of view," said pollster Andrew Kohut, who directs the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "He stood up there calmly and decisively and had a lot of facts."
Kohut said part of the change in perception came from voter discontent with events in Iraq and with the economy, but he said Kerry also benefited from low expectations of him set by Bush's campaign. "Their success in defining Kerry negatively was ultimately undercut . . . by Kerry's performance," he said.
It is no small irony that Bush finds himself on the losing end of the expectations game. Ever since he started his first presidential campaign in 1999 by dubbing his airplane "Great Expectations," he and his aides have skillfully managed public expectations so that the proverbial "bar" was set at a lower height for Bush than for his opponent.
This was most effective during the 2000 debates with Al Gore, in which Gore was expected to trounce Bush but came across as overbearing while Bush seemed comfortable and self-assured. "They misunderestimated me," a pleased Bush famously said at the end of the campaign.
Bush's loss of control over expectations may not be fatal; with 18 days to go, the race appears close enough that neither man has reason for confidence in the outcome. And it is far from clear that the Bush campaign made a mistake in the way it defined Kerry over the summer.
With impressions of Bush already firmly set at the start of the campaign, the incumbent's best hope was in tarnishing his opponent's image.
Indeed, Fabrizio said Bush's mistake was switching in recent days away from portraying Kerry as a flip-flopper and toward describing him as a devoted liberal. "If you're going to take the wood to the guy, take the wood to the guy," Fabrizio said.
By moving away from the "flip-flop" theme, he said, Bush allowed Kerry to redefine himself in the debates. "People believe what they see with their eyes, even if they know it's a sleight of hand," Fabrizio said. "That's why people like magic shows."
Kerry strategist Tad Devine disputes that Kerry was using smoke and mirrors to reposition himself as a centrist with clear and consistent views.
But he agrees that Bush, by turning Kerry into a cartoon, inadvertently helped him defy perceptions.
"The relentlessly negative advertising created a caricature that was not true," Devine said. "When John Kerry showed up and had the presence of a president, it completely undercut $100 million of advertising."
That seems true for now, although Bush still has time to rebuild voters' doubts about Kerry. Asked aboard Air Force One about whether Kerry helped his chances in the debates, the president deflected the question and counseled patience. "The voters will decide that," he said. "That's the great thing about a campaign. All the speculation ends on Election Day."