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Jewish World Review April 2, 2004 / 12 Nissan, 5764

Dick Morris

Dick Morris
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How Clarke helped prez | The 2004 contest is not between two men, two parties or even two ide ologies so much as it is between two issues. The most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll (March 26, 2004) highlights the contrast.

Asked which candidate would do the better job of fighting terrorism and promoting homeland security, Bush beats Kerry by 52-27. But asked who would be best at creating and protecting jobs, Kerry prevails by 48-31.

If voters are focused on terrorism on Election Day, Bush will win. If their gaze is on economic issues, Kerry is likely to prevail. The struggle between the two candidates is, at its core, a competition between these two issues for domination of the national agenda.

In this context, what happened last week?

Superficially, Bush was on the defensive as Richard Clarke testified that he was not sufficiently focused on al Qaeda, had failed to respond appropriately to the 9/11 attacks and was preoccupied with Iraq. The daily tracking polls of Scott Rasmussen indicated that Kerry went from two points behind Bush when the flap started to three ahead at its peak. Rasmussen shows, however, that Kerry has since lost his lead and the race is now, again, even.

But what really happened was that the nation's focus was further diverted from the economy onto the issue of terrorism. Kerry is not about to close the huge gap Bush has opened up on this issue. No matter what negatives emerge on Bush's conduct in dealing with terrorism, it will still be the president's issue. So as damaging as the Clarke testimony was - and as hurtful as his book is - all it does is ratify terrorism and the response to 9/11 as major issues in the election.

To win, Kerry needs to open up a second front by attacking Bush on the Medicare trust fund or the export of jobs. By letting the media lead his campaign onto the issue of Bush's performance on terrorism, he falls into a trap.

So what happened last week? Or last month? From March 4 through March 26, the Fox News poll reports that Kerry's negative rating has zoomed from 28 percent to 36 percent while his positives have dropped from 46 percent to 43 percent. Issues come and go. Bush's ratings will rise and fall as his conduct as president oscillates with events. But Kerry's negatives are forever. Without the power of the presidency to help him define himself, he lacks the tools to convert negatives into positives. He cannot act, as a president can, to change events and consequently recover lost ground. His negative ratings will never go down. They will only stay put or rise. When they get above 50 percent, Kerry will have no pulse.

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As always, the media focused obsessively on the Clarke testimony but ignored the air war raging above. Bush's attacks on Kerry's tax increases and his opposition to the Patriot Act and focus on the United Nations to the exclusion of unilateral U.S. action have damaged the Democrat.

Kerry's rebuttals have been late and ineffective. To counter the charge that he plans to raise taxes by $900 billion, Kerry just says it ain't so and highlights his support for "middle income" tax cuts. On Bush's charge that Kerry wanted to raise gas taxes by 50 cents per gallon, the Democrat makes no reply. And none of Bush's attacks on terrorism and homeland security get a word of rebuttal, just footage of Kerry on combat duty in Vietnam.

Kerry says that he has learned the lessons of Mike Dukakis - to always answer negatives. But his lame performance so far indicates that he has much to learn. Bill Clinton's playbook was simple: Never go to sleep without answering every single negative that is out there. Answer, answer, answer, answer. But Kerry's inability to reply to the Bush attack is costing him dearly and may cost him the election.

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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business" Comment by clicking here.



© 2004, Dick Morris