Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2004 / 29 Elul, 5764
Kerry's supporters don't really like him that much
Despite his skill in past campaign debates, Sen. John Kerry faces two mammoth strategic problems that could cripple his performance in the projected three encounters with President Bush.
The first is that his popularity, even among his own voters, has eroded significantly.
When the Fox News survey of Sept. 9 asked respondents who said they were voting for Kerry why they were doing so, a majority said it was more because of their dislike of Bush than any affection for the Massachusetts Democrat. By contrast, 82 percent of the Bush voters said they were voting for the president because they liked him rather than because of any dislike of his opponent. So despite the barrage of Kerry ads and his convention speech, most voters are really participating in a referendum on Bush rather than choosing between two candidates.
The debates will change all that. With both candidates facing the camera and addressing the nation, what was a referendum will probably become more of an election, with each candidate judged on his own merits. Bush has only to come across positively to make inroads into the Kerry vote, while the challenger must go back to square one and use the debates to sell himself to his own supporters. In a sense, Kerry will have to backfill what he should have already accomplished in his year of candidacy.
Kerry's second problem is that he is sharply limited in the issues he can use to sell himself to his voters. Kerry voters tend to disagree with one another on most of the key foreign-policy issues in the campaign.
About half of his supporters, according to pre-GOP-convention polling by Fox News, reject the idea that the war in Iraq is an integral part of the war on terror and see it as a diversion from the central task. They say they believe we should emphasize withdrawing our troops as soon as possible.
But 35 to 40 percent of Kerry's voters sharply disagree and see the war as essential to the battle against terror and want us to stay there until we finish the job. Either position Kerry takes will cost him votes. Ralph Nader's presence in most of the battleground states on Kerry's left flank only accentuates the dilemma the Democratic candidate faces.
Bush has no dilemmas. His voters like him and agree totally with his policies. He has no need to avoid issues and can confront them head-on. Should Kerry waffle, trying to appease both halves of his vote, Bush can rap him for weakness and vacillation.
The Fox News poll reports that voters believe, by 56-27 percent, that Bush is better at "taking strong stands and sticking with them."
Bush's problem is the format of the debates. He should do well in the one devoted to foreign policy, given Kerry's problems in playing to both sides of his base. But the debate devoted entirely to domestic issues would seem to be entirely on Kerry's home turf. Bush is doing better on domestic issues but still lags behind Kerry on healthcare, Social Security, Medicare and the environment by wide margins and on education and the economy by smaller amounts.
But the president can solve that problem by discussing homeland security for a large part of the domestic debate. In effect, by defining terrorism as a domestic issue, he can amplify his remarks at his convention relating the terror threat to every family in the nation.
The president, however, needs a solid domestic issue on which to best Kerry. Drug testing, which he previewed in his State of the Union speech as an issue, might offer a good opportunity for an offensive. Bush should use the debates to urge all school boards to adopt drug-testing programs for their students and to avail themselves of federal funding to finance the programs.
Kerry cannot follow Bush on this issue, given the demands of his civil-libertarian supporters, many of whom back drug legalization. It will open up a key contrast on values between the two candidates, which will help the president score important points.
Kerry, meanwhile, has to tiptoe around the issues for fear of offending his own base, many of whom don't really like him.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, most recently, "Rewriting History", a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History. (ClickHERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Dick Morris