Trail Mix: Reviving Kerry

John McCain, that part-time friend to both presidential candidates, likes to joke about the false sense of hope that bedevils politicians. "Remember the words of Chairman Mao," he says. "It's always darkest before it's totally black." It's unclear whether Mao ever said such a thing, or whether this is just another example of McCain jerking the chain of his Vietnam-era foes (who believe that he and John Kerry are some kind of Commie double-agents). In any case, McCain's Maoism deserves to become the mantra for spooked Democrats and Kerry loyalists this month.

It was only early June when Kerry held a six-point lead over Bush among likely voters in Gallup's poll. While there were many weak-kneed Republicans at that time, there was little of the wailing that so many Democrats voice now. Today Bush holds a seven-point lead among Gallup's assessment of likely voters and a one-point lead among registered voters. (The latest NEWSWEEK poll gives the president a six-point lead.) Before anyone starts counting their electoral college votes, it's worth recalling what happened four years ago. According to the Gallup poll of likely voters last time around, Bush was up by more than 10 points in mid-October, while Al Gore was up by a similar margin in mid-September. That 20-point swing in the last two months of the 2000 election shows just how wildly the mood can change among voters--even when the nation is supposed to be divided equally down the middle.

Back in early June, I suggested how Bush could stage a comeback from what looked like a dire situation in Iraq and a mixed picture of the economy. In the interests of being fair and balanced, it's worth looking at the scenarios for Kerry to stage his own revival.

IRAQ

The conventional wisdom says that Iraq is now a strong point for Bush and that Kerry should avoid the subject at all costs. That pearl of wisdom is based on post-Republican convention polling which gives Bush a double-digit lead over Kerry on the question of who could better handle the situation in Iraq. NEWSWEEK's most recent poll gives Bush a 15-point advantage on Iraq, which is roughly where he was in mid-March, before the prisoner abuse scandal erupted. Most of Bush's recovery on Iraq has taken place while the country has dropped off the front pages and slid far down the network news, after the handover of power to the Iraqi interim government. Yet American casualties have risen at a faster pace in the post-handover period, as the insurgency in Iraq has gained strength.

When voters and historians look back on Bush's presidency they will remember two events: 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Both conventions this summer largely avoided Iraq, while the Republicans focused on 9/11. The result of all this inattention is already clear: Iraq is rapidly climbing up the news agenda because the latest outbursts of violence--at least 57 people died there just today--make it seem fresh once again. For Kerry, Iraq's return to the headlines offers a rare chance to shift the focus of the debate. For most of the last two months, the burden has rested on Kerry to explain his approach to Iraq. Now the insurgents are effectively moving that task back to Bush. How will U.S. troops end the growing insurgency once and for all? Are there enough troops in Iraq to finish the job? And what is the exit strategy for those troops to come home? As the administration seeks to move billions of dollars from reconstruction to security in Iraq, those unanswered questions will fall repeatedly to Bush, not his challenger. Kerry could exploit this further by re-focusing voters on the original battlefield against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, where the job is far from finished and the survival of the Afghan government far from assured. If anything is going to weaken Bush's image as a strong war leader, it's his performance on Iraq--not the phony war over either candidate's Vietnam years.

THE DEBATES

The last set-piece event of the election will dominate three of the remaining seven weeks of the campaign. Given the pre-debate spin and the post-debate analysis, that's easily half of what's left of the general election. Kerry's aides are already insisting their candidate is at a disadvantage to the president's already-proven debating powers. That may be part of the game of raising expectations for Bush, who famously trounced Ann Richards in Texas and Al Gore in 2000. For Bush, as a sitting president, there is little to gain from the debates themselves and lots to lose in terms of presidential stature. For Kerry, as a challenger, the potential gains lie in demonstrating he can hold his own against an incumbent president. In that sense, the 2004 debates could look like the 2000 debates in reverse, where Kerry's bar is almost as low as Bush's was four years ago. And just like Bush, Kerry is no slouch at debates. Just ask his 1996 rival William Weld, the charismatic former Massachusetts governor.

MESSAGE CONTROL

The Kerry campaign has finally discovered what it takes to break through the chaos of a presidential campaign's echo chamber: simplicity and persistence. Maybe some of its message--such as "Bush is wrong"--is overly-simplistic. (They could have said reckless or even right-wing, but then those words don't begin with W.) But the campaign's repetition is having the impact of helping to move the focus back on Bush's record, rather than Kerry's previous statements. Beyond the slogans, Kerry's aides are also proving more adept at using surrogates, including the 9/11 widows who endorsed the senator on Tuesday. This chipping away at Bush's 9/11 credentials, along with the constant questioning of his priorities, is slow work. Yet it's the only realistic way the campaign can lay the foundations for the final weeks of this election.

THE HOMEFRONT

At his current low point, Kerry is running either neck-and-neck or ahead of Bush on domestic priorities, including the economy, jobs and healthcare. Even Bush's traditional strength on education has slipped away, according to the latest NEWSWEEK poll. Terrorism and homeland security top the list of most important issues by only 4 points more than the economy (25 points versus 21 points), while Iraq only just edges out healthcare for the third most important issue (15 points to 14 points). That means Kerry's focus on jobs and healthcare is a solid (if uninspiring) basis for rebuilding his position through September--and for starting the long haul to any comeback next month.