Trail Mix: A Glass Half Full Or Half Empty?

Rising from the dead is a great experience. Don't take my word for it. Just listen to the Kerry campaign, which has undergone at least one Lazarus moment and believes it's in the middle of another. There's nothing quite like the sense of satisfaction (and relief) that comes from surviving the very worst and proving the pundits wrong.

John Kerry had his first comeback after the long, bleak winter last year, when everyone prematurely pronounced his candidacy dead on arrival soon after he formally kicked off his race in September. Today, to listen to Kerry's aides, the moment has come again.

After the flap over Kerry's Vietnam record, after all the examples of flip-floppery, after the $60 million of mostly negative ads run by the Bush campaign, Kerry holds a slight lead over George Bush in some polls. To listen to Kerry's staff, this feat is something like Luke Skywalker flying into the Death Star and emerging with Darth Vader's face mask. "We made the decision that we weren't going to play tit-for-tat with Bush, allowing him to define the ground," said one. "We believed at the outset--and there's increasing evidence for this in the new polls--that the attacks weren't going to work, that they were historical, and weren't reaching people and the heart of their concerns. We needed to do things on our own terms at the right time. Bush shot this huge negative cannon at us, and we survived and we are on the air with some very powerful stuff."

The current bout of campaign giddyness comes from a series of polls, some read over-optimistically and some that Kerry's people find positively heart-warming. Take the National Annenberg Election Survey of voters. The survey showed that Kerry's favorable ratings had barely moved among swing voters--undecideds who said there was a good chance they could change their minds--despite Bush's advertising blitz. Then there are the two Gallup polls released over the past week. The most recent gives Kerry a 6-point lead over Bush among registered voters. Gallup puts Bush's approval ratings at 46 percent, the lowest of his presidency, down 3 points in a week. Support for the war in Iraq is at 44 percent, down 6 points. On the crucial question of whether the country is heading in the right direction, just 37 percent say they are satisfied with the way things are going.

The Bush strategy, says the Kerry folks, is failing. Just look at the way the Bush campaign was forced to drop its slogan on last week's presidential bus tour. Initially billed as the "Winning the War on Terror" tour, the operation was re-named 'Yes, America Can.' "They obviously tried to take us out and all the evidence is they're not going to succeed," said another senior Kerry aide. "I think among swing voters there's a very high frustration with negative advertising. I think it's driving up Bush's negatives in the battleground states. They're trying to make Kerry look unacceptable, but I think people instinctively believe that John Kerry can be president. That's one of the great advantages he has. It's typically a very high hurdle to get over."

All campaigns can sound smug. They want to project an air of self-confidence, to look like a winner before the race is over. But there's a danger in overplaying your certainty: the danger of ignoring the bad news and hyping the good. After all, you need to convince yourself that you'll win before you can convince the rest of the world. In an evenly divided nation, at a highly volatile time, this can be a dangerous state of mind. You might sound uncomfortably detached from the rest of the world. You want to believe the glass is half full, but what if the rest of the country thinks it's just half empty?

Just look at the election from the Bush campaign's perspective. If anyone's negatives have risen, it's Kerry's, say Bush's aides. They also argue that Bush advertising has been effective in defining the senator as a flip-flopper and weak on defense. Kerry's numbers still lag behind the president on Iraq and terrorism. So it's no surprise to find that the only two Bush ads left running on the air right now are about Kerry's votes against weapons systems and his doublespeak on the war in Iraq. Bush's strategists say the ads have kept the president in the race at a time of historic difficulties and an onslaught of dismal news--not least, the awful pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison.

At this stage of the contest, both campaigns may be right. The glass is encouragingly half full for both candidates, and worryingly half-empty at the same time. For both sides, this may be the point of maximum danger, a time to breathe a huge sigh of relief at having survived two very different onslaughts. At the end of the 2000 campaign, on the final flight to Austin, Texas, one foolish reporter congratulated then-Gov. Bush at having survived all those months on the road. Bush wheeled around and glowered. That wasn't the point, he said. He wasn't just trying to reach the end of the campaign trail; he wanted to win. It's as true now as it was four years ago: survival isn't enough for Kerry or Bush. It's just a staging post on the long road to November.