Trail Mix: Inside the Bubble

Just in case John Kerry was feeling a little too pumped after his weeklong party in Boston, the real world was waiting to bring him back down to earth. On the first day of his postconvention bus trip (formally known as the Believe in America tour), Kerry stopped at a Wendy's to see if America believed in him. The answer was: maybe. At the roadside eatery in Newburgh, N.Y., Kerry and his wife, Teresa, joined their running mates, John and Elizabeth Edwards, to celebrate the Edwards's 27th wedding anniversary. The Edwards have been enjoying their anniversaries at Wendy's for the best part of three decades, but this wasn't a chance for Edwards to run for the position of Wendy's unofficial spokesman (against a weak incumbent). It was, of course, a monumental photo op and a chance for an invigorated Kerry to test out his newly honed skills in retail politics.

Watched by several dozen photographers, cameramen and reporters, Kerry spotted a group of Marines at another table and walked over to quiz them about their base and their ribbons. The conversation was short and crisp. After a week of endless images about Kerry's military service and his commitment to the troops, the Marines were not impressed. "We support our commander in chief 100 percent," one told reporters after Kerry had moved on. "We think that we are doing the right thing in Iraq," said another. Other diners were slightly more moved by the experience of seeing the new Democratic nominee and his veep choice. Debbie and Earl Reagan, both Republicans and veterans of the Air National Guard, loved Kerry's acceptance speech. "I've always been a Republican, but after the speech last night we made the decision that we were going to vote for Kerry," said Debbie. What moved the Reagans most was not the relentless message about the military, but Kerry's focus on the middle-class squeeze and his commitment to science.

In the middle of a summer with little news but a lot of hype, it's easy to miss what moves voters--or even whether they have moved at all. And standing in the middle of a party's convention, or traveling with a presidential candidate, is just about the worst place to find out what voters think or feel. That's why they call it The Bubble. It's not just because the presidential candidates (and their press corps) are cocooned inside a protective wall of security and staffers. As any goldfish will tell you, the beauty of a bubble is that it's strangely reassuring and disturbing at the same time. The more you try to look at the outside world, the more distorted everything seems.

Inside the bubble, Kerry looks like he's making a strong pitch for military votes and--given the glowing reviews of his convention--appears to be succeeding. Outside the bubble, the men and women of the armed services may be feeling less warm and fuzzy. After all, there's still a deep attachment to the troops serving in Iraq, to those who have died, and to the incumbent commander in chief.

Yet it's not all bad news for Kerry, as the Reagans showed (and that is apparently their real name). Kerry's success in Boston was to neutralize the military issue, to make it acceptable for voters like the Reagans to consider other parts of his agenda. That's why Kerry's strategists are drawing comfort from the post-Boston polls that suggest Kerry has drawn level with Bush on the war on terror. Sure, they'd have loved to get a double-digit bounce out of the convention. But failing that, they have leveled the playing field on the president's best issue. It's not unlike Bush's strategy in 2000, when the Bushies emphasized education above all other policies. Not because it was the be-all and end-all of Bush's politics, but because it made independent voters and some Democrats take a second look. For some voters in 2000, it made it acceptable to vote for a Texan Republican. And for some independent voters and Republicans in 2004, Kerry's strong military image might just make it acceptable to take a second look at a Massachusetts Democrat.

Boston was not the slam dunk that some Democrats had dreamed of, even if their candidate is now leading at the outer edge of the margin of error in some polls. But it was still a turning point in this election cycle. What turned was the strategy of the main players. Kerry has moved his tanks onto the lawns of Bush country, drawing big audiences in counties that were decisively Republican in 2000. The Dem pulled a crowd of 25,000 in Harrisburg, Pa., in a county that voted for Bush by a margin of 9 points in 2000. And a crowd of 17,000 in Wheeling, W.V., where Bush won by 11 points in 2000. These just happen to be counties where the ties to the military, especially those serving in Iraq, are far stronger than the big cities. They also happen to be places where the economic recovery remains weak, and where lost manufacturing jobs have been tough to replace.

Yet the biggest shift in politics after Boston has nothing to do with John Kerry. If July was Kerry's month, August belongs to President Bush. In the monthlong run-up to the Republican convention in New York, Bush can now take the spotlight with all the levers of power in his hands. He has nearly unlimited money to spend, all the executive powers of the White House and the ability to shift gears whenever he needs to. Just look at his first new TV ads. They could almost have been taped by a different candidate from the President Bush of the last four months. Where his ads were almost wholly negative before, they are now uplifting and optimistic. Where they used to tear John Kerry apart, now they never mention his name. All this at a time when Kerry can no longer control many of the TV ads on his behalf because he has now accepted federal funding for his general election. Those decisions are now in the hands of the Democratic National Committee, an arms-length relationship that will only heighten Kerry's sense that he's no longer in control of his own fate.

As this week's terror warnings showed, control now lies in the hands of the president. The next month will show whether Bush can reach outside the bubble to swing voters who might like his positions on prescription-drug benefits for seniors. Can he speak about the economy in ways that voters relate to, or will he sound so upbeat that only Google IPO investors nod their heads? At least John Kerry had the primary season to bring him out of his Senate bubble. The test for George Bush is whether he can emerge from the White House bubble with a better sense of what voters like the Reagans want to hear.