Trail Mix: And Now It's September

John Kerry may be lagging in the polls. He may have a small mountain range to climb to edge ahead of George W. Bush. And he may still be tied in the knots of his past statements. But there's a lot that has changed about the Democratic candidate in the last few weeks of the election, suggesting this race is very far from a romp for the Bush-Cheney campaign. As Kerry and Bush complete their final rehearsals for this week's first TV debate, it's worth taking a closer look at how Kerry has raised his game.

PHOTO OPS

There was a time when the Kerry campaign treated photo ops as an annoying distraction from everyday politics. There were weeks dedicated to fund-raising, weeks dedicated to big speeches and sometimes--just occasionally--a week dedicated to pretty pictures. If Kerry's old handlers had little visual sense (who on earth, apart from the candidate, could think that windsurfing photos were a good idea?), his new handlers have wised up to the notion that you can walk and chew gum at the same time on the campaign trail. In Columbus, Ohio, last week, Kerry issued a rebuttal to the speech by Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. It was a makeshift affair: a podium, a microphone, a line of cameras. But the remarkable feature was the location. Kerry was standing outside a firehouse in what looked like a parking lot. In the old days, the only thing behind him would have been a line of elected officials. This time around, just a few minutes before Kerry began talking, a fire truck pulled up behind him. It was a simple trick, but effective nonetheless. Kerry has relied on the firefighters' support from day one as proof of his credentials on homeland security. One of his favorite lines is to question why firehouses are closing in the United States, while they are opening in Baghdad. Setting aside Kerry's strategy of attacking Allawi's account of life in Iraq, he proved one thing: the candidate has finally learned how to deliver his message with pictures as well as words.

QUESTION TIME

One of the golden rules of political flacks is to swat aside hypothetical questions. There's a good reason for this, and it's not just to annoy reporters. Most hypothetical questions are loaded for a response you don't want to give. They're also really easy to dodge. After all, who has the time to answer fantasy questions when there's so much to do in the real world? At the top of that category would be questions asking you to recast your prewar votes on Iraq with the benefit of hindsight. Those may be great debates at a history seminar, but they generally make for bad politics.

Kerry seemed to have learned that lesson after his August pickle. Yet he still shows signs that he's a work in progress when it comes to hypothetical questions. At his press conference last week, Kerry plunged right into a question asking him to explain his prewar vote on Iraq compared to his prewar vote on the gulf war of 1991. In fact, he couldn't resist taking two bites at the question before something inside him kicked in. After meandering around the question of how presidents should use the authority to go to war, and how they need to build public support, Kerry finally found his message. "That's the debate the president wants to have now," he noted, belatedly. "But the debate now is whether you have a plan to win and whether or not you are facing the realities on the ground in Iraq."

Two days later, Kerry faced another hypothetical, this time about the aborted offensive to crush insurgents in Fallujah earlier this year. What would Kerry have done differently, the reporter asked? Kerry's response showed how he is shaping up. After noting the president's mistakes in "rushing to war" he simply declared that things would have been totally different if he'd been in charge: "There wouldn't have been a Fallujah." If Kerry wants to win his TV debates, and the final exchanges of the 2004 election, he's going to need much more self-discipline about hypotheticals, and much more of the tough stuff response about Fallujah.

RAPID RESPONSE

Back in the old days of, say, four weeks ago, the Kerry campaign thought that rapid response meant counterpunching whenever the Bushies landed a blow. That's so August. Kerry's new team (of old Clinton hands) has discovered the gift that never stops giving: the mouths of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. First Bush pooh-poohed the CIA assessment of Iraq's security as some kind of parlor game ("They were just guessing," Bush told reporters in New York). Then he noted that Allawi's "right track" numbers were better than his during their joint press conference in the Rose Garden (this from a president who prides himself on not paying attention to the polls). Then there was Rumsfeld's ho-hum prognosis for worse violence in Iraq at election time. "So be it," the Defense secretary told Congress, "nothing is perfect in life."

Has the Bush administration suddenly become prone to foot-in-mouth disease? Not really. But the Kerry campaign has suddenly become infinitely more skillful in monitoring such flubs and deploying them in the back-and-forth of the campaign. Such miscues sound worse with each day of deepening violence in Iraq. Of course, the Kerry folks are playing a late game of catch-up with their rivals, who have planted Kerry's feet in the cement of his comments on the campaign trail--especially his town-hall riff on the $87 billion vote. Yet there's still time--and room for maneuver in the polls--for this strategy to be effective. Bush backed off his "guessing" comments last week, and the Kerry campaign--along with the worsening picture in Iraq--have shifted the election's focus away from prewar votes and back onto real-world Iraq.

It's unclear whether such improvements in Kerry's performance can close the gap on Bush in the next few weeks. But it's a sign that Kerry is capable of learning from his mistakes. It's also a sign that there's a lot of life left in the 2004 election.