Sen. John F. Kerry was the big story here Monday. His dinnertime rally downtown with former Vermont governor Howard Dean drew thousands of supporters and dominated the local television news that night. "Portland crowd rallies around Kerry," a front-page headline in Tuesday's Portland Oregonian said.

But the presumptive Democratic nominee barely caused a blip on the national news media radar, even though he was paired against President Bush in ceremonies in Topeka, Kan., commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Kerry got a one-sentence summary on the "CBS Evening News" and a two-sentence summary on "NBC Nightly News." ABC's "World News Tonight" aired a two-sentence sound bite -- to Bush's three.

Earlier this year, the senator from Massachusetts had little trouble attracting national attention as he racked up a series of primary election victories. Since then he has been far less visible, struggling almost daily to compete for attention with the news out of Iraq and the bully pulpit of the White House.

All this has left Kerry with a smaller megaphone at a time when challengers often struggle to be heard. But Kerry advisers argue that, with Bush on the defensive and his poll numbers dropping, their candidate has hardly suffered from the lack of national media visibility.

Tad Devine, a senior Kerry strategist, said the nonstop Iraq coverage is a double-edged sword: "I think the information people have gotten about Bush for the last two months on the network news has been bad for him."

Other Democrats worry that Kerry has been slow to develop a compelling message for his candidacy, rendering him unable to take full advantage of the president's weakened position.

Kerry has offered only a few major policy initiatives since wrapping up the primaries and has been inconsistent in delivering the message of the day emanating from his Washington headquarters, according to some Democratic strategists. Unless he talks about Iraq, his speeches and events are constantly overshadowed or eclipsed in the national media.

On May 6, Kerry unveiled a major education initiative in California, promising to provide more than $20 billion to hire more teachers and boost their salaries. On the network news that night, CBS ran nothing, NBC aired a profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry and ABC's Peter Jennings reported a Kerry comment on the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal.

From April 1 through last week, the three network newscasts did not run a single report on Kerry's proposals on jobs, education, health care, the environment or other issues he has been hitting on the stump, mentioning them fleetingly just five times. But they carried reports that tended to portray Kerry on the defensive: the controversy over his throwing away his Vietnam medals or ribbons, an attempt by some Catholic leaders to deny him communion, and Vice President Cheney's attacks on his defense record. CBS ran a piece on Democrats worried about his candidacy, while NBC did one on how Kerry's message is being drowned out.

With the newscasts heavily focused on the violence in Iraq, the prisoner scandal and the beheading of an American contractor, Kerry is often glimpsed uttering a sound bite on the day's events. He has approached the Iraq issue carefully, refusing to comment on every development.

"There are a lot of overwhelming news stories going on at the moment requiring extensive coverage, and they eat up most of the news time day to day," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News." "I've always believed presidential campaign coverage starts well before most of the public is ready to pay attention."

Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, said television is faced with "big world events in which Bush is a central player and Kerry is only a player if he chooses to be. He is not saying anything bold, different or particularly relevant to that day's story. It's not our obligation to hold our breath and turn purple and insist he inject himself into these international stories."

Bill Wheatley, an NBC vice president, offered a similar rationale, saying it is "difficult for a candidate to get covered in the middle of a major international news story" but "it's only May. It will even out."

Criticism of Kerry in Democratic circles has lessened in the past week, as several new polls show Bush's approval rating dropping over Iraq and Kerry leading in matchups. The latest numbers quieted complaints by Democratic donors and consultants about the campaign's inability to break through.

Kerry strategists say they are not concerned. "How he gets covered in Pittsburgh or Ohio or Ann Arbor [Mich.] is tremendously different from what we see on the national news," said Mary Beth Cahill, the senator's campaign manager. "We've spent a lot of time on the road with local media, and we think that's going to pay off."

But such coverage must be earned one market at a time, compared with a combined network news audience of 25 million. And local television reports are sometimes fleeting.

When Kerry visited Wheeling, W.Va., last month, the CBS affiliate reported: "He was greeted by local supporters with cheers of 'Jobs first!' and 'Push Bush out!' But about 30 of the more than 100 people who showed up yesterday for Kerry were showing support for President George W. Bush."

The NBC affiliate's report focused on local residents: "Kerry's backers say he's better for health care, education, jobs and better for America. . . . Dozens of pro-Bush supporters showed up toting signs and a blow horn."

Even when local coverage is upbeat, other news can send a different message. In Tuesday's Oregonian, the splashy coverage of the Kerry-Dean rally ran beneath a report about the first day of same-sex marriage licenses in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts.

Kerry's domestic themes regularly generate stories in major national newspapers, though usually on inside pages these days, and on the cable news channels. But these reports have also been diminished by war and terror.

Democratic strategist Ron Klain, a former adviser to Al Gore, said "the incredible dominance of news events" won't sideline Kerry indefinitely."

"There will be plenty of moments between now and November when John Kerry is front and center," Klain said. "What you need to do as a campaign is get ready for those moments and not wring your hands over things you can't control."

Kurtz reported from Washington.