Blind dates and running mates

March 04, 2004

IN A GRACEFUL gesture that no doubt springs from his grandmother Dorothy Bush's insistence on good manners, President Bush called Tuesday night to congratulate the man who will lead the eight-month Democratic drive to oust him from the White House.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry exchanged similarly gracious remarks with John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who was so thoroughly drubbed in all 10 Super Tuesday primary states that he formally withdrew yesterday from the contest -- leaving Mr. Kerry the last man standing of 10 Democrats who had been battling for the nomination for a year or more.

Sadly, the tone of the high-stakes presidential contest will almost certainly go downhill from here as Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry jockey from what are nearly even positions in the polls.

Probably the first item of business for both campaigns will be acquainting voters with Mr. Kerry. Despite nearly 35 years in public life, and his participation in the long run-up to the presidential primaries, the presumptive Democratic nominee isn't well known to most Americans. Even for Democrats, he's something of a blind date, chosen in January by Iowa caucus voters and quickly accepted by voters eager to unite behind a winner.

The skill with which Mr. Kerry is able to define himself -- his values, his priorities, what kind of person he is -- before Mr. Bush and the Republicans do it for him may prove critical to the outcome in November.

President Bush must also be quickly about the business of reminding voters what they liked about him before months of being pummeled by the Democrats -- plus bad news from military and economic fronts -- took their toll.

Thanks to an absurdly designed primary calendar, the general election campaign is already fully engaged three months before the last states hold primaries in June, and four months before the first party convention opens in July.

Mr. Kerry, with far less cash than Mr. Bush, apparently will try to hold voters' attention as long as possible with an elaborate process of picking a running mate, a kind of dating game for political junkies.

The presidential candidates would be doing the nation a great service if they used this abundance of time to conduct a thoughtful discussion of the complicated issues at stake. Both have said they believe the nation is at an important crossroads on foreign as well as domestic policy.

If they can resist the low road of stereotypes and sound bites, and instead frame the debate so that one of them wins a genuine mandate for action, this time will have been well spent.

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