Since the end of the Democratic primaries, attacks on John F. Kerry by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, backed by millions of dollars in negative ads, have wiped out the narrow lead Kerry enjoyed at the beginning of the month and damaged his public image.
The senator from Massachusetts emerged from the primaries unscathed but still little known, a condition Bush's team set about to change with an aggressive plan to define the senator before he could define himself. A month later, more voters see Kerry as "too liberal," and a solid majority says he is someone who has changed his positions on issues for political reasons -- both charges leveled by the Bush campaign's daily attacks through ads and public statements.
The damage to Kerry has been partially obscured by the controversy over the new book and public testimony of former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, who has charged that Bush let his personal obsession with Iraq overshadow more important priorities in the war on terrorism.
Bush has suffered some erosion in public perceptions of his handling of terrorism, according to new polls, but still holds a strong advantage over Kerry on that issue. The president's decision yesterday to allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the independent commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was seen by strategists in both parties as an effort to cut short a potentially damaging public relations battle that threatens to chip away at the broader gains he has made in the past month.
Bush and Kerry advisers agree that the race will stay relatively close throughout the spring and summer, and some Republicans still see problems ahead for Bush because of what one GOP strategist called "persistent pessimism" about the economy and concerns about Bush's handling of Iraq. Some independent analysts said the White House fight with Clarke over terrorism could damage Bush's credibility among voters, but administration officials expressed confidence yesterday that they will win that battle, with Rice's help.
Kerry officials acknowledge that the Bush campaign tactics over the past month have hurt. "The Bush people dumped $20 million of negative ads on our heads; it's going to have an impact," said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's deputy campaign manager.
But Elmendorf dismissed the significance of the damage, saying it comes at the beginning of what both sides expect to be a long and relentlessly negative campaign. "We're responding, and we're going to have a dialogue with them," he said. "We don't get up every morning and look at the latest poll and decide what to do. We have a plan. We're following a plan."
Some Democrats agree, but many others worry that Kerry's campaign has been ineffective in countering the Bush attacks. Privately, they have begun to question whether the Kerry team has been too slow in making the transition to the general election campaign.
Kerry effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination in the first week of March with a near-sweep of the Super Tuesday states. And at that time, he had a clear lead over Bush in most public opinion polls. Since then, he has been on a small, but steady, decline. Strategists said that is the result not only of the Bush ads but also of a natural leveling of momentum after the primaries.
Two polls this week underscored that movement. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll showed Bush leading 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters, compared with a Kerry edge of 50 percent to 45 percent just after Super Tuesday. A Pew Research Center poll showed Kerry leading Bush 47 percent to 46 percent, down from 52 percent to 43 percent in mid-March.
The Pew Center survey showed that Kerry has lost some of the advantages he has held over Bush on domestic issues such as handling the economy, health care and education. And while Bush has declined a bit on terrorism, he has improved his standing against Kerry on trade, Iraq and foreign policy.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said Kerry's standing has slipped in part because of the Bush campaign attacks and because he has been far less visible than he had been during the heat of the primaries. "Even though he is a longtime national figure and not as much of a blank slate as Michael Dukakis was in 1988, people don't have a lot of conviction about him," Kohut said.
The Bush campaign has sought to change the political dynamics after two months of bad news and unified Democratic attacks. "For six months, it was a one-way conversation, and then you had the final five or six weeks when Kerry was winning primaries that improved his image," said Bush senior strategist Matthew Dowd. "Right after March 3, a dialogue started about who is or who isn't John Kerry, and the president started advocating for himself. I think we're better positioned from that and Senator Kerry is worse positioned."
Bush's overall approval rating moved up to 53 percent in the CNN-USA Today-Gallup Poll, after dipping to 49 percent a month ago. Meanwhile, his favorable/unfavorable ratings, which strategists watch closely as leading indicators of voters' attitudes, held steady at about 57 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable. Kerry's favorable dipped from 60 percent to 53 percent over the past month, and his unfavorable rating rose from 26 percent to 36 percent.
Kerry's advisers discount the changes that have occurred. "They've thrown their very best shot at us," said Kerry adviser Tad Devine, "and the result is essentially a dead-heat horse race. If they cannot open up some daylight with Kerry in the next few weeks, they are in trouble, and that's why they're acting the way they are."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said the damage inflicted so far can be overcome with an effective and consistent message from Kerry. "The Bush White House has chosen its weapons well," he said, "but I really want to emphasize that while Kerry has taken some hits, I think they are surface wounds. People . . . want to learn more about Kerry."
Democrats also said that voters are more than willing to take repeated looks at a candidate before making a final decision, as they did in 1992 with Bill Clinton, who was badly battered by personal problems early that year and still defeated Bush's father.
But one of Bush's top political advisers said 2004 is not 1992. "I don't think [Kerry's] personal campaigning skills are anywhere near President Clinton's, and second, you had the factor there in Ross Perot that was eating away at Bush's base and weakening him," said this adviser, who asked for anonymity as a condition of discussing Bush's strategy more freely.
Kerry's advisers also say that, while the race is now essentially even, the shifts over the past month have been less significant in many of the battleground states, where Kerry and two independent Democratic groups have been countering the Bush ads. A recent Ohio Poll survey taken just before the release of Clarke's book showed Kerry leading 46 percent to 44 percent, with independents giving Bush a negative personal rating.
While the first month of the general election campaign has brought some changes, neither side sees them as permanently altering the shape of the race. But the opening of the battle has potentially significant consequences. Greenberg said the Bush strategy is aimed at preventing Kerry from crossing a threshold of acceptability among voters interested in changing the direction of the administration's policies. Voters "want a change in principle," he said, and the Bush campaign "wants to make sure there's no candidate for the job."