HAIL TO THE CHIEF

By the time John Kerry reported for duty at the Democratic convention in Boston at 2200 hours, the president was asleep in the White House. So George W. Bush did not hear the Massachusetts senator's unexpectedly sharp attack, delivered at a forced-march pace to instill urgency--and ensure a balloon drop at 2300. Kerry proclaimed a familiar, if slightly reworded, promise to make the country "stronger at home, respected in the world." But as he did in Vietnam, he made straight for the enemy's stronghold, in this case Bush's vision and performance as commander in chief. Inferentially but unmistakably, he depicted Bush as an untruthful, self-deluded war leader blind to the brutality of battle and the complexities of diplomacy. At the same time, Kerry portrayed himself the better prepared. "I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror," he said. "After decades of experience in national security, I know the reach of our power and the power of our ideals. We need to make America once again a beacon in the world."

But the president had retired early for a reason: to rise before dawn to hit the road and join the fray. Wearing a presidential windbreaker and a determined look, Bush flew to Missouri to meet his opponent on the ground that history, and Kerry's own strategy, guarantees will be central in this long campaign. Whose doctrine, and whose character, is more suited to lead us in a post-9/11 struggle with a stateless, suicidal and elusive enemy? The war in Iraq, Bush said, was an example of his belief in the primacy of anticipation, not alliance making. When Saddam Hussein "continued to deceive the weapons inspectors," Bush said, "I had a decision to make: to hope for the best and to trust the word of a madman and a tyrant or remember the lessons of September 11 and defend our country. Given that choice, I will defend America every time," he told a cheering crowd on a ball field in Springfield. As for Kerry, Bush painted his 19-year Senate career as a study in legislative nonaccomplishment. "My opponent has good intentions," the president said, "but intentions do not always translate into results."

So the war over the war is joined. It is a real debate over a profound issue--the first time since 1972 that world affairs has dominated a campaign. It is far too early to tell whether attacking Bush as commander in chief is brilliant or not--or indeed, whether it's just an attempt to "inoculate" Kerry on the issue of militant patriotism before turning in the fall to wooing female swing voters, one kitchen-table domestic issue at a time. In the meantime did Kerry get a "bounce" from his micromanaged, flag-wavingly patriotic lovefest in Boston? Not much of one. Three weeks ago, after he chose Edwards as his running mate, Kerry led Bush 47 percent to 44 percent in a three-way race, with Ralph Nader at 3 percent. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, Kerry is leading 49-42-3. The survey, conducted half on Thursday night and half on Friday, indicates that Kerry picked up the most support after he delivered his acceptance speech. And there is another hopeful sign for Democrats: only 36 percent of voters say they are "satisfied" with the country's direction, a number that is even lower, other polls show, among undecided voters. But the GOP convention is still to come, and Bush has just begun to fight.

August is usually a quiet time, between conventions and before the stretch run of the fall. This time the guns of August are blazing in advertising on TV and on the nation's highways. Bush, who took most of the month off in the first three years of his presidency, is hitting the road by train, plane and automobile--and bus, attempting to match Kerry-Edwards's own two-week-long bus trip through battleground states. (Last Saturday the rival caravans came within miles of each other near the Ohio River.) On TV, Bush will be advertising heavily, touting his achievements and looking sunny and upbeat in new ads that also feature his wife, Laura. While Kerry can no longer spend private money (and wants to husband his federal cash), "independent" organizations are pouring money into attack ads.

The real domestic war is not just over a state, nor a category of voters, but over a nebulous concept: "values." In his convention speech, Kerry painted Bush as the antithesis of them: a sellout to corporate polluters; a manipulator who hijacks the flag, the Constitution and the name of God for partisan purposes, and a flat-earther standing athwart the tide of scientific progress on techniques such as stem-cell research (a handy proxy for Democrats, who prefer the issue to the morally murkier one of abortion).

In a 10-bus caravan, wending its way through Pennsylvania, the Democrats' traveling band was a rolling advertisement, featuring the candidates, their wives and most of their children (plus Ben Affleck), hugging, needling and praising each other in a live demonstration of family values. Kerry's rescue of Jim Rassmann in Nam, they said, was about "values." Stipulating that health care is a birthright is a value. Pennsylvania is a value, said Teresa Heinz Kerry, who inherited a fortune from her late husband and who remains a leading philanthropist in Pittsburgh. "This is where I learned my values to be an American," she told a crowd in Harrisburg. Even Wendy's, where the Edwardses ritually celebrated their anniversary again (for the 27th time) is a value--especially since Kerry paid the tab and Wendy's is headquartered in swing-voter central, Columbus, Ohio.

But Bush will be a hard man to beat if the race boils down to a contest over which prep-school-trained rich kid can play regular guy on the road. In drafting a new stump speech oriented to domestic issues, Bush reminded his aides, "I'm not a professor," as he urged them to simplify the language for his audience. To help do that he enlisted the speechwriting skills of his longtime values channeler, Karen Hughes. Hughes's mantra from 2000--that Bush, as a governor, was a "reformer with results"--has been updated to "a record of results": tax cuts, an economy showing evidence of revival, the new (though shaky) governments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Still, Hughes, Bush and Karl Rove, the White House's political wise man, know all too well the lesson of George H. W. Bush's listless 1992 campaign: you need that second-term "vision thing" for middle-class families, especially for working women and mothers who form the bulk of the undecided vote. Rove ignored the carping of Republican Party types who had been urging the president to unveil a new agenda two months ago. "If we laid out stuff in June, no one would be paying attention," said a White House official. This month, Bush-Cheney '04 is offering the theme of "opportunity and ownership," encouraging a family-based entrepreneurial society through tax-code changes, flex time and personal health-care savings accounts. "The role of government," Bush said in Springfield, "is to help our citizens gain time and tools to make their own choices and improve their own lives." Bush ridicules Kerry's plan to raise taxes only on the rich; doing so, he says, would inevitably affect everyone.

Heavier artillery is on the way. Last week the president and Mrs. Bush quietly taped a long interview with Dr. Phil, the psychologist made famous by Oprah Winfrey. By tradition, the Bushes are notoriously wary of "couch stuff," as Bush 41 put it. But with Dr. Phil, the topic will be limited to parenting and, as one of White House adviser says, he generates "very high numbers," especially among women. The interview will air in September. In this war, it's territory Kerry will want to invade, too. But Bush is getting there first.

HAIL TO THE CHIEF | News