Jewish World Review March 30, 2004 / 8 Nissan, 5764
Kerry's Ides of March
The moment of political victory or defeat most often passes unnoticed by journalists and the insiders of the respective political campaigns.
It is only in the retrospective of history that it becomes clear, and, even then, it is often distorted by the myopia of historians.
But March 2004 gives every sign of going down in history as the crucial month of the presidential campaign. It will, very possibly, be recorded as the month in which Sen. John Kerry lost the election.
Fresh from his successes in the Democratic primaries and the Super Tuesday concession of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the Massachusetts senator jumped out to a large lead 11 points in the Washington Post survey and eight in the Gallup Poll.
Resting on these laurels, he focused on fundraising, raking in an additional $8 million in the weeks after becoming the all-but-official nominee of his party, and on skiing, relaxing and preparing to do battle in the general election.
In the meantime, Bush pounced, taking advantage of the early selection of his opponent to unleash a barrage of attack advertisements painting Kerry as a taxer, spender, internationalist, appeaser and all-around flip-flopper.
Seeming to remember the lessons of his fellow Massachusetts Democrat, Mike Dukakis, Kerry announced that he would not let Bush define him as the first President Bush defined Dukakis. But, in fact, he reacted passively and late to the Republican thrust.
His paid media answered the taxer allegation with a lame denial and failed to answer Bush's attacks on his sublimation of American security needs to the decisions of the United Nations and his weakness on the terrorism issue.
Kerry only compounded the problem by saying that he had voted for legislation allocating funds for the Iraq campaign before he later voted against them. While voters were trying to unravel this Casey Stengelish observation, Bush was well on the way to making Kerry unacceptable to the American voters.
Even Kerry's counterattack, featuring a former Bush national-security aide saying that the president was distracted from a focus on terrorism by an obsolete worldview predicated on Cold War norms, worked to the president's advantage by making terror the issue of the day.
When al Qaeda exploded bombs in Madrid, terrorism pushed the economy, healthcare, Social Security and the environment off the front pages. Countering the terrorist organization's international offensive became the only issue in American politics.
And it is the only issue Bush wins. Even as the public was voting for Kerry by double-digit margins, it conceded, by 10 points, that Bush was the superior wartime president.
As a result, both the Zogby and Rasmussen polls have the presidential race even today after two weeks of pounding by the Bush campaign. If Bush had moved up, the closing of the gap might be ephemeral. What goes up can also go down. If the president had enhanced his ratings by a bold speech or an important policy move, the day would likely come when the impact would wear off and his ratings would slip back down again.
But the closing of the gap was made of sterner stuff. Kerry became too liberal for a significant segment of the swing voters as a result of the Bush attack commercials.
Even at this writing, Kerry is failing to answer the Bush negatives and is falling prey to their arguments. If all voters hear is the Republican characterization of Bush, that is what they will come to believe.
Kerry's attacks on Bush matter little. Voters have spent four years studying the Republican president, and no new information is likely to sway them one way or the other. For better or worse, Bush is defined and only earth-shaking developments are going to change his image.
But Kerry is still an unknown quantity, and the jury is still out on whether or not he is too liberal for America.
By conceding the field to the Republicans in March, Kerry has likely cooked his own goose. As he soars downhill on his ski vacation, his poll numbers seem headed in the same direction.
Will voters who backed Kerry in early March and then were driven by negative ads to switch to undecided ever come back? It's not very likely.
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