Final Days

After all the conventions, after all the debates, after all the TV ads and stump speeches, what's left? How does a presidential campaign break through the clutter to reach the hearts and minds of voters?

It's the news, stupid. If John Kerry wins next week, he'll have the headlines to thank. Week after week in this closing phase of the general election, the news cycle has turned in his favor. From the shortage of flu vaccines to the war in Iraq, there has been precious little good news for the Bush campaign--and the bad news goes to the heart of the issues of the 2004 election. Four years ago, the only news that broke through in the final days was the decades-old story about Bush's drinking and driving--a story that hardly spoke to the central debate of the election. To this day Karl Rove, the president's strategist-in-chief, blames the DUI story for erasing Bush's lead in the final days.

This time around, the news stories don't stop coming. The missing 380 tons of high explosives in Iraq is no minor flap on the outer edges of the election. It gets to the essential question about the war: is Iraq less of a threat today than it was four years ago? The Bush campaign struggled to explain away the disappearance of the explosives this week, losing its much-admired message discipline at a critical point in the election. First the White House promised a full investigation. Then Republicans suggested the amount of explosives was relatively small. Finally, the Bush campaign said the story was a piece of liberal propaganda from The New York Times, and suggested nobody really knew where the explosives were in the first place.

Throughout this election, the conventional wisdom--based on multiple opinion polls--was that Bush would succeed as long as the focus was on Iraq. Yet the first TV debate showed that Kerry could mount his most effective argument for change by talking about Iraq. Now, once again, Kerry has found his biggest opening on Iraq, jumping on the news of the missing explosives to challenge Bush's competence and credibility. "He didn't have enough troops on the ground to get the job done," Kerry told supporters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on Tuesday. "He didn't have enough allies to get the job done. He failed to secure Iraq and keep it from becoming what it is today--a haven for terrorists."

In contrast, the Bush strategy has been twofold: to challenge Kerry's character, and to set the clock back to the end of 2001, a period when the war meant Afghanistan. If Bush wins next week, he'll have his ad-makers to thank. Their work to remind voters of his image after the 9/11 attacks, and to caricature Kerry as a spineless liberal, have partly succeeded in halting a torrent of bad news from Iraq. In the final days of the election, it's Bush's mistakes on the battlefield versus Kerry's mistakes in the Senate.

Do the headlines make that much difference? To undecided and persuadable voters, they can shift a few crucial points of support either way. And in an excruciatingly close race, that could well be the margin of victory. Yet it's also hard to control and even harder to make your own. What both campaigns can control is the job of firing up their respective base, and that's where the focus remains in this last week.

In the end, most elections hinge on a fairly simple question: which side wants to win more? That's where the mood of the final rallies matters. In 2000, Democrats were not all that steamed about Al Gore, who always suffered from comparisons with Bill Clinton as a legendary campaigner. That ambivalence lay at the heart of Ralph Nader's support, who drew on the feeling that there wasn't much difference between Gore and Bush. Republicans found their own steam from the same comparison--for them, the election was a re-run of impeachment with the chance to clean out the White House. That's why Bush closed out every event with his best line--his pledge to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office.

Four years later, both sides are attracting huge crowds of adoring fans who genuinely believe their rivals represent some kind of mortal threat to the United States. Both sides believe their man is the only thing that stands between chaos and civilization. Yet it's the Democrats who are showing a surprising degree of intensity in these final days, laying to rest the notion that the party is somehow hesitant about Kerry himself. When an estimated 80,000 people turn up in downtown Philadelphia--a sea of faces that stretched for a mile or more--you know the mood of the base has changed. And in spite of the headline draw of Clinton himself, the huge crowd was far more responsive to Kerry than the former president. "I've never seen crowds like that," said one veteran of the Clinton and Gore campaigns. "Clinton didn't draw crowds like that, and nor did Gore."

By the time Kerry arrived in Michigan, he had moved on from 'Elvis' (aka Clinton). Warming up an 8,000-strong crowd at Macomb Community College, in the Michigan county that defined the Reagan Democrats in 1980, was Jon Bon Jovi. Later this week, Kerry will deploy an even bigger draw: Bruce Springsteen.

Normally the appearance of performers at campaign rallies feels clunky, like the moment in musicals when the actors break into song. But when Bon Jovi ended his unplugged numbers on Monday, the crowd erupted into a series of chants: No More Bush, Eight More Days, and that old favorite Ke-ree Ke-ree. When the professorial Michigan senator Carl Levin stepped on stage, the crowd behaved like Bon Jovi himself had returned for an encore. They even loved Governor Jennifer Granholm's cringe-inducing attempt to rewrite Bon Jovi's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead ("This ain't no slumber party, got no time for catching Zs, if they say that ain't healthy, well then winning's our disease.") "I don't know what she ate for breakfast today but she's all wound up this governor of yours," Kerry remarked when the microphone finally passed into his hands.

For these crowds, it doesn't much matter what Kerry says or what the rock star sings. They adore them both: the rocker with the blue-collar fans and the once-wooden senator with the ponderous oratory. Just as well. Their favorite number was Bon Jovi's biggest hit, which is no theme tune for a presidential campaign in its final days: Livin' on a Prayer.