Premature panic

The doom-and-gloom brigade is savaging Kerry because the race is still tied after Bush's horrible April. But the campaign has barely begun.

By Tim Grieve

Published May 5, 2004 9:20PM (EDT)

With just months to go in an election that ought to be a referendum on President Bush, the New York Times runs a front-page story: The Democrats are in serious trouble. Although Bush's approval ratings are low, the presumptive Democratic nominee can't get any traction. His campaign "continues to confront a cloud of doubts and reservations," the Times says, and voters are complaining that he hasn't offered the country a clear vision for the future.

It may sound like the Times on John Kerry in 2004. In fact, it's the Times on Bill Clinton in 1992.

The media began making funeral plans for the Kerry campaign over the weekend, and the New York Times led the way with a gloomy front-pager by Adam Nagourney. As it turns out, the predictions of Kerry's demise were more replay than revelation. It's certainly true that Kerry has problems -- his campaign lacks the money, the organizational structure, and the message discipline of the well-oiled Bush-Cheney machine -- but we've heard this before.

The Times painted an equally dour assessment of Clinton's prospects in a front-page piece in April 1992 headlined "Clinton Dogged by Voter Doubt." The Times said then that unnamed "political professionals in the Democratic Party" were troubled that Clinton hadn't made a better impression on the nation's voters. Nagourney's piece Sunday reported that "Democratic Party officials" have similar worries about Kerry.

But there's a key difference here: In April 1992, the New York Times/CBS News poll showed Clinton trailing President George H.W. Bush, 49 percent to 40 percent, among registered voters. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows Kerry and President George W. Bush in a statistical dead heat.

Clinton beat Bush 43 percent to 37 percent in November 1992.

The Times does not stand alone in questioning the direction and momentum of the Kerry campaign. From pundits to pollsters to some party strategists, the reigning conventional wisdom suggests that Kerry should have a much more commanding position than he does right now. When talk show host Chris Matthews asked a dozen of his "regulars" who "won the week" last week, Bush or Kerry, the panel resoundingly concluded that Kerry lost big. "The Democrats better hope he's a slow starter," Sam Donaldson said on Matthews' show on Sunday. David Brooks opened his column on Tuesday with this stark assessment: "Democrats are anxious."

But Democratic strategists have a message for the nervous: Don't panic. Yes, the Kerry campaign has been slow to organize itself, to get campaign operations up and running in could-be-crucial states like Ohio and Arizona, to define Kerry and to set him apart from Bush on the critical question of Iraq, to respond to -- or to take the high road above -- the incessant smears from the White House and its waves of surrogate attackers. But the race is young, Democratic strategists say, and this Bush is as vulnerable as the last one was.

"I find all the moaning and carping going on right now kind of puzzling," says Paul Maslin, the veteran pollster who helped run Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I can't tell you how many calls I've gotten in the last 10 days saying that Kerry's campaign is for shit. And I'm trying to think, 'What's causing this?'"

What's causing it is the widespread perception that Kerry should be squashing Bush right now. Bush has just had the worst month of his presidency. His war on Iraq seems to have spiraled out of control: More than 130 U.S. troops -- and 10 times as many Iraqis -- were killed in April, and the United States has lost the support of Spain and several other coalition members. The bipartisan commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11 has raised questions about the administration's inattentiveness to warnings of terror, and revelations from Bob Woodward and others have made it clear that Bush was obsessed with ousting Saddam Hussein even as U.S. troops were being deployed in Afghanistan. Bush stumbled through a rare prime-time news conference, and allegations that the president was AWOL during Vietnam resurfaced among stories of Kerry's war heroism.

Instead of running laps around Bush, Kerry is neck and neck with him in the national polls and still trying to define himself while defending against Republican attacks. "George Bush has had three of the worst months of his presidency, but they are stuck and they've got to move past this moment," Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's presidential campaign, told the Times.

Democratic analysts and strategists told Salon, however, that they think concerns about Kerry's progress are overstated. "The Democrats are overeager," says Ann Richards, the former Texas governor who branded Bush the elder as a spoiled rich kid and then lost a re-election bid to Bush the son. "They're anxious for this contest to gel, and it's too early for that."

Richards said Democrats are unaccustomed to having a presumptive nominee so early; at this point in the Clinton-Bush race, Clinton was still fending off former California Gov. Jerry Brown. "They are extremely impatient, and when that's expressed to me privately by well-intentioned individuals, I tell them to focus their attention on what they can do, not what the nominee should be doing."

Still, it's clear that the presumptive nominee could be doing more. While the Bush-Cheney campaign has implemented the sort of hyper-organized plan in Ohio that might have served the United States well in postwar Iraq, Kerry has virtually no campaign structure at all in that critical swing state. The Los Angeles Times reports that Kerry also lacks offices in mega-critical Florida, and that he lacks either staff or offices in New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, the latter a "red" state where the latest polling shows Bush with a surprisingly small three-point lead. The campaign said it initially lacked the money to open offices everywhere, but recent record-breaking fundraising means that the Kerry campaign will be on the ground in a lot more places in the weeks ahead.

But Kerry needs more than offices and staff; he needs high-profile help to help him fend off Bush-Cheney attacks. While Bush has a hatchet man for a vice president and a cadre of Republican senators happy to lead the smear du jour against Kerry, it is frequently Kerry alone who must answer. While Kerry has relied in recent months on help from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., they have faded from the scene of late -- perhaps the press simply no longer considers them news -- and no one has taken their place. The Democrats' would-be surrogate in chief, Bill Clinton, has been holed away in Chappaqua finishing his long-awaited memoirs amid speculation that instead of boosting Kerry's profile this summer, he might actually steal the limelight.

With no one backing him up, Kerry is too often seen scrambling back and forth to rebut Bush-Cheney charges, looking for all the world like an overmatched tennis player racing from one end of the court to the other in a desperate attempt to return all the drives. It's a trap that the Bush-Cheney campaign has laid for Kerry, and he has fallen into it. "The Republicans are very good at lobbing spit wads to see what sticks," said Richards, no stranger herself to smears from Bush and Karl Rove. "Kerry has got to answer every single one of them, because if you don't then the media will claim that he isn't answering the attacks. And then when he does answer all of them, the media will say that he has no message."

With no surrogate -- and no vice presidential nominee yet -- to help him, Kerry has been forced to defend himself on everything from his war record to the kind of cars his family owns. The process has left him looking petty at times, equivocal at others, and it has turned so many issues -- particularly the question of service in Vietnam -- into he-said, she-said disputes. Rather than stressing that Kerry served admirably in combat in Vietnam while Cheney obtained five deferments and Bush did or didn't show up for National Guard duty stateside, U.S. News and World Report ran a cover last week showing Kerry in a suit, Bush in a uniform, and identifying 1971 as a "defining year" in both of their lives. Coverage of the Vietnam service spat has transformed the issue into a tie, and that's a victory for Bush.

And amid all of the sweating in the media over the small stuff, like SUVs and Botox -- not to mention the Times' important and exhaustive study of Kerry's so-called butler, actually an aide who, the Times tells us, makes PB&Js for the presumptive Democratic nominee -- voters continue to say that they don't really know who Kerry is or what he stands for. Kerry acknowledged as much in early April, but his campaign has done little to improve the situation.

That may change this week, as the Kerry campaign launches $27.5 million worth of television ads designed to introduce the candidate to the voters in traditional swing states and even in a couple of red states Democrats think they have a shot at flipping. It's exactly the sort of approach that many Democrats believe Kerry needs to be taking -- and soon. "Kerry is now going to need to define himself and the race on his terms more effectively than he has," Maslin said.

Although Bush had a bad month in April, he also had the month more or less to himself. Kerry spent much of the month raising money, while the Bush campaign has spent some $60 million on advertising of its own -- just to stay even in the national polls. Former Clinton strategist Doug Schoen says that's a sign of Bush's vulnerability. "Between Kerry having been on vacation and not being on the air as much as Bush, it's good news that, at this time, the polls show that the race is tied," Schoen told Salon. "Bush is anchored by only one thing -- national security and terrorism. His rankings on the economy and the war are negative, and he's in a much weaker position than the overall numbers indicate."

Maslin agrees, saying that the "fundamentals" of the race still favor Kerry. "The fundamentals are that the country's a mess, and Bush's argument is that it's such a mess that you've got to stick with me," Maslin said. The Republicans "don't have a story to tell, so they're left scaring everybody to death about Kerry. I'm not saying that they're not having some impact, but 'some impact' is the best they can say." With approval ratings under 50 percent, Maslin said, Bush is in "a danger zone for an incumbent."

The key for the Kerry campaign is to make sure that Kerry meets some "threshold" of acceptability in voters' minds, strategists say. He doesn't have to come across as the greatest candidate ever, they say, but simply as a credible and viable alternative to Bush -- particularly if another terrorist attack on U.S. soil throws the race further up in the air.

The White House knows that the "threshold" question is critical for Kerry, and that's why it can't concede even what appears to be a sure loser of an argument -- say, the Vietnam service question -- to Kerry. If Kerry can stand as a war hero, he may meet the threshold. If Bush and Cheney and Rove can muddy up his record and cast him as something less than honest, even about something as trivial as whose medals or ribbons he might have thrown one day in protest, then the threshold becomes harder to reach.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, says it's possible that the Bush-Cheney attacks on Kerry's war-hero status may be driving down Kerry's numbers in states that are safely Republican but may not be helping Bush in swing states. "It looked like Bush was making some headway in the battleground states at the end of March, but in April things may have gone the other way," he said.

Presidential elections don't turn on the national vote -- just ask President Al Gore -- and Teixeira said that polling from critical swing states is so sporadic and inconsistent that it's hard to make solid predictions about Electoral College numbers. But like many other Democrats, he says any panic about Kerry's prospects is "way too much, way too soon."

"We're six months away from the election," Teixeira said. "People think that just because Bush got a lot of bad news, Kerry should be 10 points ahead. I think they're kidding themselves."

Kerry has made mistakes, Teixeira said, and he'll have to start performing better. But beating Bush is "quote, doable," he said, and Kerry can do it. "It's a fair statement that Kerry is going to have to run a good campaign to beat him, but it's far too early to conclude he's incapable of doing it."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections Democratic Party George W. Bush John F. Kerry