THE WEDGE WAR

It had been, by any measure, a tough run of days for President George W. Bush. His own Republicans were calling him a spendthrift. Failure to find WMD in Iraq had undermined a central rationale of the war he launched there, raising questions about his credibility and even his competence. The Democrats, meanwhile, were dominating the headlines, coalescing around Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who belittled Bush's stateside service in the National Guard during Vietnam. The result was clear: in the NEWSWEEK Poll, the president registers the lowest job-approval rating of his term, 48 percent, and he loses a test match to Kerry by 50 to 45 percent. "There was an accumulation of things and they took a toll," said Charlie Black, an adviser to the White House. "Bush needed to go on the offensive, and to speed up the timetable."

Consider it sped. Without fanfare--indeed, behind closed doors--the president essentially launched his re-election drive a week ago Saturday in Philadelphia, privately telling disgruntled and restive Republican members of Congress gathered in the City of Brotherly Love that there would be none in the coming campaign. Insiders tell NEWSWEEK that Bush-Cheney '04 soon will dip into its huge war chest to launch a take-no-prisoners TV ad campaign against the Democrats' presumptive nominee. The aim: to define Kerry as a tax-raising, big-spending, criminal-coddling lefty who opposes the death penalty and restrictions on abortion, and who has advocated cutting funding for intelligence agencies and for weapons programs during his 20 years in national politics. In other words, drive home the "wedge" issues that force a Democrat to confront his party's ideological base. "Kerry has a long record, a record we're not at all afraid to run against," Bush said. When the Massachusetts courts ruled last week that the state must sanction gay marriage, GOP operatives added the issue to their shopping cart: though Kerry is not a supporter of gay marriage per se, he voted against the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. "Kerry should enjoy this bullish moment," said Black, "because it's his last."

But before attack ads comes the damage control on Iraq. First, Bush met with David Kay, the former weapons inspector, to hear his theories about why U.S. and British intelligence had gotten the WMD question so wrong. Then the president named a commission to examine this and other intel failures--and gave their report a due date well after the November elections. Finally, Bush told aides, he wanted to sit for an interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press." It was a risk--Russert can be a fearsome interrogator--but Bush and his aides decided it was a risk he had to take. In a White House planning session, adviser Karen Hughes said, "We were talking about the fact that people have a lot of questions" about the war, and Bush is "the best one to address those questions." The hourlong interview, taped in the Oval Office, yielded what Bush aides wanted: a well-prepped-for chance to admit that Mistakes Had Been Made on the intel front--an understatement--while still touting the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the doctrine of pre-emption in the war on terror. Bush said that CIA Director George Tenet's job was safe, that he would be "glad to visit with" the new commission and maintained that there will be "ample time for the American people to assess whether... I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power."

Even as Bush was playing defense, his aides were plotting how to paint Kerry as too "left" to lead. This President Bush is determined not to repeat the fatal political mistake of the last one, which was to ignore and underestimate his Democratic foe (Bill Clinton in 1992) until it was far too late. Much of spring and summer--the crucial middle act of the three-act play of a national campaign--will be aimed at trying to do to Kerry what Clinton did to Bob Dole in 1996: define the enemy (negatively) before he can define himself (positively). "Kerry and his team will learn real quickly that the American people do not know much about John Kerry," said Scott Reed, who worked for Dole in '96. Being on the receiving end of a "defining," he added, "is no fun."

Bush-Cheney '04 and its GOP allies will start with what they see as a Massachusetts Miracle for them politically: the court ruling requiring the state to sanction gay and lesbian marriages, starting in May. A lifelong supporter of gay rights, Kerry was among a handful of senators to oppose the federal Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton. It bars gay and lesbian couples from receiving federal benefits and stipulates that each state is free to refuse to recognize as valid a gay-marriage sanction by --another state. In defending his vote, Kerry branded the law (and the Senate debate over it) "scapegoating" and "politics at its worst."

His GOP foes will try to use the vote to depict him as "out of the mainstream" on the issue. "It's a clear winner, politically," argues Black. That's probably true--if the Republicans can put Kerry in a gay-marriage box. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, voters oppose gay marriage by a 58-33 margin. But independents don't regard the general topic as crucial in deciding how to vote.

Opponents of gay marriage--led by evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholic allies of the White House--advocate an amendment that would define the institution solely as a union between a man and woman. Presidential political CEO Karl Rove recently promised "The Base" that Bush will eventually support such an amendment. (They were threatening to stay home in the fall if he didn't.) White House aides were disappointed that Russert didn't ask about gay marriage.

But not all White House advisers want Bush to be visibly associated with the effort. Americans aren't eager to use the Constitution as a platform for social engineering. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, voters favor an amendment by only a 47 to 45 percent margin, and independent voters oppose it 48-44. "This is one of those cultural issues where the Republicans are going to overreact," said Robert Shrum, a Kerry adviser.

GOP "oppo" teams are digging through piles of votes and position papers Kerry has accumulated in 20 years of seeking and holding a Senate seat. Ratings issued by ideological groups, a rough comparative measure, show him to be more of a classic liberal than Sen. Ted Kennedy. Kerry aides note that their boss voted for tough budget limits in 1985, for welfare reform in 1996 and to add 100,000 cops on the street that same year. Asked if Kerry considers himself a "liberal," spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter replied: "He doesn't accept any label; you can't put a brand on him."

Republicans will try. On social issues, they will point to his steadfast opposition to a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion and his votes against a bill that would require parental notification and consent for a minor to have the procedure. On money issues, they will note his opposition to two of Bush's three tax cuts and his support for Clinton's 1993 tax increase. They will focus on his advocacy, early in his tenure, of cuts in spending on the CIA and on his opposition--as a candidate for the first time in 1984--to an array of weapons, among them the B-1 bomber and the Tomahawk and Patriot missiles. "There is so much stuff, we almost don't know where to begin," said one GOP lawyer.

"We won't contest his bio," Black says, which is wise, because Bush and Kerry are too similar for White House comfort: men of means and connections, educated in top prep schools, graduated from Yale and "tapped" for membership in Skull and Bones. But that won't stop the GOP from trying to depict Kerry as that favorite character of conservative demonology: a "limousine liberal." The Heinz Kerrys own a series of homes--on Nantucket, in Sun Valley, Idaho, and in Louisburg Square in Boston (Kerry borrowed $6 million against his share in the latter to finance his comeback in Iowa). And oppo types will undoubtedly focus on family financial transactions. One such deal involves the conversion and sale in 2002 of up to a million dollars of stock in Ingersoll-Rand. It was a profitable sale--netting from $100,000 to $200,000--of a company whose balance sheet was boosted by its decision to move its headquarters offshore to Bermuda. So what? Well, one of Kerry's best applause lines is his pledge to end tax breaks for what he calls "Benedict Arnold" firms that move offshore--to places such as Bermuda. (Kerry spokes-man Michael Meehan said the sale was made by professional fund managers for Teresa Heinz's trust and that Kerry wasn't even aware of it. "Senator Kerry is not involved in the management of her assets," said Meehan.)

How does Kerry fight back? For one, by just fighting back--as Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts failed to do in 1988. "This guy isn't Mike Dukakis," said a Kerry adviser. Kerry signaled his tough-guy stance by joining in attacks on the president's military service record. In his orotund but sly way, Kerry equated going to Canada or jail with doing what Bush did in 1968: joining the National Guard. Republicans lashed out at the "smear tactics"--and summoned Dole to defend Bush and the honor of National Guard troops serving in Iraq. Kerry aides claimed victory, and cheered further when Russert asked the president for proof that he'd showed up for guard duty in 1972, when he transferred to a unit in Alabama so that he could work on a Senate race there. Attendance records of the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron do not show that Bush was ever there. "I never saw the man, I never met the man," Kenneth K. Lott, the squadron's personnel officer at the time, told NEWSWEEK. Lonnie Slauson, who was the squadron commander in 1972, told NEWSWEEK that "the name Bush wouldn't have meant a thing to me back then," but he had no memory of Bush, either. (The president told Russert that his honorable discharge in 1973 is proof enough that he did his duty, including in Alabama.)

Kerry links his attack on Bush's Vietnam-era story with emotional salesmanship of his own. His advocates are the men who served under his command of Swift Boats in the Mekong Delta--one of whom, Jim Rassman, Kerry saved by hoisting him out of the Bay Hap River under enemy fire. Rassman's unscripted appearance in Des Moines was worth millions of ads and months of strat-egy. A delighted Shrum presented him with an inscribed copy of Doug Brinkley's new biography of Kerry. "To Jim," Shrum wrote, "who fished us out of the river."

To pump up Kerry's macho image--and soften the impact of such views as his opposition to the death penalty for everyone but terrorists--his campaign will also take note of his years as a local prosecutor. ("Kerry fought crime and put away murderers and mob bosses!" a new press release shouts.) Team Kerry also will tout his defense of Second Amendment rights, and even his skill as a hunter. In Iowa, they proudly note, he bagged two pheasants in open fields with two blasts of a 12-gauge shotgun. That's far more sporting that Vice President Dick Cheney's mass slaughter of 70 pheasants released into the line of fire on a hunting preserve.

Still, Kerry's Democratic foes contend that no PR effort can make him salable in the South, where, if history is any guide, Kerry--or any Democrat--would need to win at least five states to gain the presidency. Kerry has to prove he can sell himself in the region. His five-state sweep last week didn't include South Carolina, which Sen. John Edwards won, or Oklahoma, where retired Gen. Wesley Clark was the victor. Kerry was hoping to do well this week, or perhaps even win, in Tennessee and Virginia. Privately, many Democrats contend that there are scenarios by which they can triumph in a close presidential election without a single win in the Old Confederacy or in such border states as Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Electoral College math and image-crafting aside, Kerry's fate may well be decided by whether he can convince swing voters in swing states that he has practical answers to everyday concerns. "Voters care most about jobs, about the economy in general, about health care and education," says Shrum. "Antique labels from another era have nothing to do with it." Maybe not, but that is for the voters to decide--and George Bush is just now beginning to speak.