Two rivals fine-tune messages

President Bush

Bush aims to revive image as calm, likable

Election 2004

16 days until Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 2

October 17, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As President Bush and his campaign team rev up their campaign for a race to the finish, they hope to revive the image of the likable, ordinary-guy president whose calm leadership soothed the country after the Sept. 11 attacks before he went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the same time, the president plans to intensify his criticism of John Kerry, continuing to portray the Democratic candidate as a "Massachusetts liberal" whose views put him outside the mainstream. Bush's surrogates will likely be harsher, searing Kerry with attacks planned to make him seem like an opportunistic politician who will do anything to get elected.

"We're in a time of war," Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, shaper of his image and architect of his campaign, said yesterday as he discussed the strategy. "Do you want a leader who vacillates, caves to political pressure and attempts to hide his true feelings behind a veneer of rhetoric? Or do you want a leader who says what he believes and does what he says?"

With about two weeks left, the battle for the presidency is as close as any of the bumper-to-bumper NASCAR races that thrill hordes here each spring. Bush has blown his lead, and his challenger threatens to overtake him.

The president now jokes about not scowling and remembering to stand up straight, but his peevish performance in the first debate -- slumping over the podium, grimacing and awkwardly pausing before answering questions -- turned off voters and made Kerry look presidential by contrast. His performance in the second two debates improved, but marginally.

In the end, Bush aides say, the president lost a chance to exploit a clear advantage he has always had over his opponent: the fact that many Americans -- a majority, they hope -- like Bush more.

As the race roars into the final turn, Bush will try to connect with voters again on a personal level, trying to turn his campaign into a contest between men, and not one of weighty policy agendas. (Still, Bush intends to continue his contentions that Kerry has little to show after 20 years in the Senate and that the Democrat's health program will increase the size of the federal bureaucracy.)

`Picking a man'

The effort to tarnish Kerry's character, and by comparison burnish Bush's, is in full cry among Bush's campaign aides.

They say that when Kerry discussed Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, in response to a question in the final debate about homosexuality, the senator played right into their new strategy. Immediately, the vice president's wife, Lynne, once a regular on the incendiary CNN debate program Crossfire, called Kerry "not a good man."

"The Mary Cheney flap hurt him in a place where we thought he was vulnerable," said Nicolle Devenish, the director of communications in the Bush campaign.

"We have had this robust policy debate," Devenish said of the candidates' face-to-face encounters. "But at the end of the day, you're picking a man. You're picking a leader. You're picking someone on character and on his principles."

Democrats have retorted that the Republicans' claims of outrage are merely a ploy to distract voters from the real issues. Mary Cheney's sexual orientation is no secret, and she was previously employed as a liaison to the gay community by the Coors brewing company. She is a key campaign adviser to her father, who publicly raised the issue of her homosexuality in late August, eliciting public complaints from social conservatives, such as Gary L. Bauer and Alan Keyes, the party's Senate nominee in Illinois.

While Bush aides think the ruckus over Mary Cheney might die down, they hope the final two weeks of the campaign will increasingly become a clash of personalities. They are particularly targeting undecided voters who are lukewarm at best toward the president and open to an alternative, but who have trouble warming up to Kerry.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee described the president as "the fellow we want to have dinner with, sit around and have lunch with."

He called Kerry "a very liberal United States senator. He's an excellent debater; he stands up straight; he has a perfectly tailored suit; and he's not the sort of person you want to spend a lot of time with."

Bush will also campaign in the final two weeks alongside his wife, Laura, who has become a popular figure and can humanize the president as he barnstorms across the nation.

Beginning right after the debates, Bush squeezed new language into his stump speech that aims to portray him as human and approachable, as well as dispelling Kerry's oft-repeated charge that Bush misled the American public on his motives for attacking Iraq.

"The last few years, the people have gotten to know me," Bush says at each campaign stop. "They know my blunt way of speaking. I get that from Mom. They know I sometimes mangle the English language. I get that from Dad."

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