Fading advantages

May 21, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When Sen. John Kerry emerged in March as the presumptive Democratic nominee, fellow Democrats feared his early success would backfire by making him excessively vulnerable to President Bush's fund-raising and incumbency advantages.

The front-loading of the 2004 primary schedule into the winter months gave Mr. Bush nearly five months before the Democratic National Convention to use his huge advantage in campaign funds to hammer Mr. Kerry, defining him before the lightly known senator could adequately define himself.

Mr. Kerry's campaign treasury had been depleted in the course of winning a highly competitive fight for the Democratic nomination. So those five months seemed mighty long before the federal campaign finance law's transfusion of millions to the major party nominees would kick in.

It was the same dilemma that faced Republican Bob Dole in 1996. Then, he had similarly exhausted his campaign treasury in a competitive nomination fight. He also clinched his party's nomination early and fell prey to President Bill Clinton's well-funded attacks until the summer, when the first campaign checks from Uncle Sam arrived.

But this year, two developments have countered to a degree the expected Bush advantage and Kerry handicap. The first has been the decision and ability of independent Democratic groups to raise more than $40 million in unrestricted "soft" money for Mr. Kerry through a loophole in the recently reformed campaign finance law. The second is the dismal turn of the Iraq war.

The fund-raising efforts of these independent groups have been far from a match for the Bush campaign's unprecedented amassing of $200 million of restricted "hard" money by wealthy donors. It bundled their rich friends' and associates' contributions in packages of $100,000 or more.

The Democratic groups have, however, raised enough to run pro-Kerry and anti-Bush TV adds in sufficient quantity and frequency in key swing states to deny the Bush campaign an uncontested political advertising environment.

As the Bush campaign has been methodically casting Mr. Kerry in the most unfavorable terms, from his inconsistencies on Iraq to questions about his Vietnam military record and later anti-Vietnam war activities, the Democrats have responded with TV attacks on Mr. Bush's National Guard service and the like.

But the more significant development eroding the president's money and incumbency advantages has been the continuing turmoil in Iraq. The insurgencies in Iraq, followed by the disclosures of military prison abuse, have dominated the news almost to the point of pushing the presidential election campaign off the radar of American voters.

This public focus has so permeated television screens and newspaper front pages that both Mr. Kerry's efforts to draw attention to his domestic proposals and Mr. Bush's attacks on Mr. Kerry have gotten little traction. But in this, Mr. Bush has been the bigger loser because his earlier money and incumbency advantages have been largely neutralized, enabling Mr. Kerry to survive this period of potentially greater political peril to him.

Mr. Kerry, to be sure, has not taken much advantage of Mr. Bush's Iraq woes. He is still struggling to overcome his support of Mr. Bush's war resolution while trying to fashion a clear alternative policy for extracting the United States from the ill-conceived Middle East adventure.

But in March, when Mr. Kerry first had the Democratic nomination in hand, the president -- with his great financial edge and his seemingly solid stature as a wartime president -- appeared poised to reduce Mr. Kerry to a political basket case by convention time.

For quite a while afterward, even as the war in Iraq was turning sour, Mr. Bush was able to maintain his favorable approval ratings while Mr. Kerry seemed to be treading water. But that situation appears to be switching now, with 51 percent of voters in the latest Gallup Poll viewing the president unfavorably, a majority for the first time, and Mr. Kerry moving slightly ahead.

From the beginning, many Democrats have insisted that the election will be a referendum on Mr. Bush, and even more so now. So with his stewardship of the Iraq war under mounting criticism, it makes political sense for his re-election campaign to continue trying to make Mr. Kerry the issue -- as an untested, dangerous alternative to the man already in charge.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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