By Dick Morris
February 19, 2004
For three years, George W. Bush has sought to define himself by his accomplishments as president. Legion though they are, he has only achieved a stalemate: His job approval is
Stalled in his effort to win re-election on his own merits, the president now must turn his attention to his opponent. The Battle of Bush is deadlocked. But the Battle of Kerry has only just begun.
John Kerry is now entering any candidate's period of maximum vulnerability: the time after he becomes well known among the voters, but before they have enough positive information on him to be resistant to negatives.
Before a candidate achieves wide name recognition, attacks against him don't matter much. Until the voters know who he is, they have no mental file in which to store negative news. The charges or accusations just wash away.
But once he becomes widely known, voters develop an intense and understandable curiosity about the man who might be their president. They quickly absorb and process anything about him that is floating around in the information ether. And the negatives (or positives) stick for the rest of his political career.
Kerry's gallantry during the Vietnam War has been permanently emblazoned on the public mind with the dramatic appearance of the soldier he rescued, under heavy fire. But so has his subsequent strong anti-war position. (Rumors of marital infidelity will leave their faint trace, but, without corroboration - and in the face of his denial - shouldn't amount to much.)
Bush can't let this definitional period pass without putting up black marks against the Massachusetts senator's record. And he won't miss the chance.
The battle to define Kerry comes when the Democrat must focus all his resources on the remaining primaries. His opponents lie wounded on the ground, but he has still won only a small proportion of the delegates he needs to win the nomination. While his is busy with this task, Bush should - and likely will - advertise nationally to sully the Kerry image.
In 1988, Bush's father could afford to wait until the summer nominating conventions to tell voters about Mike Dukakis. But, back then, the nominating battle was drawn out over half a year and it was premature for the opposing party to inject its own attacks on the frontrunner that early.
If Bush delays his ad blitz, the Democrat will wrap up the delegates he needs by early March and replenish his coffers. Presumably learning from Dukakis' failure and Clinton's success, Kerry will see the need to answer all negatives within hours of their launch.
Right now, Kerry can't answer in paid advertising, no matter how much he wants to. His resources are fully engaged with the primaries. But he'll soon be free for the combat.
Bush must strike now, while Kerry's planes are still on the ground or otherwise occupied.
Bush had two opportunities to avert a nail-biting finish in 2004, one in which he might not be as fortunate as he was in 2000. The first was to build up a level of job approval which would have made him unbeatable. Inaccurate predictions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the ongoing drip-drip of American casualties have ruined that chance. But he can still win with a commanding margin if he turns Kerry into a Dukakis (instead of letting him become a Clinton). We'll know by spring if he has succeeded.
If Bush fails in this effort,
we'll be in for a see-saw battle and another photo finish.
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Morris is a political consultant, commentator and best selling author. Look for his newest book, "Power Plays" and his new book, "Off With Their Heads - Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists In American Politics".
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