Will Kerry come out swinging in the final round?

By Mark Follman

Published September 27, 2004 7:23PM (EDT)

As all eyes turn to the first presidential debate this Thursday, Salon's Scott Rosenberg says Kerry had better step up to the podium and punch Bush rhetorically as hard as he can -- or the race is finished. It's likely Kerry's final opportunity, Rosenberg says, to beat back the bullying Bush campaign's core strategy of portraying Kerry as a wimp.

"'Someone who blinks when things get hard is not the right person to win the war on terror.' That's President Bush's communications director, Nicolle Devenish, in this morning's New York Times.

"Now, maybe Bush doesn't blink. But we know that the current president, 'when things got hard' on 9/11, sat with a dull, vacant stare for agonizingly long minutes in a Florida classroom before waking up to the fact that he was commander-in-chief and the nation was under attack. And we know that Kerry fought in Vietnam, led troops in combat and saved comrades' lives. Who would you rather have guarding your back?

"But look how effectively the Bush team has cemented its message: Kerry is a wimp. That's what this whole campaign has been about: Karl Rove's sick but smart strategy punched Kerry in the groin with the Swift Boat Veterans' lies, then used Kerry's failure to punch back hard to demonstrate that the candidate has no guts. If he can't protect his reputation, goes the subtext, how will he protect your children? (Josh Marshall applied the crude but accurate label of "bitch-slap" to this psychodynamic.) Depressingly, this neanderthal logic actually appears to be working: NPR reported this morning that 'soccer moms' are turning into 'security moms,' as Bush makes some inroads among female voters normally thought to lean Democratic.

"Kerry really has only one big opportunity left to change the tide of this campaign: At Thursday's debate, he needs to get in President Bush's face. Since Bush has chosen to make this a showdown over the candidates' masculinity, Kerry should take off the gloves. The Bush campaign has outrageously reframed all criticism of its failed policies as 'aiding and abetting the enemy'; it has scandalously declared that if the nation elects Kerry, we'll get the terrorist attack we deserve. This president has forfeited the decorum that normally prevails between candidates. Kerry should feel no obligation to civility."

Read the rest, including Rosenberg's take on what Kerry should say, here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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