President Bush

Campaign takes on sharper edge, a personal tone

Turning final days before election into a popularity contest

Election 2004

October 22, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HERSHEY, PA. — 11 days until Election Day, Tuesday Nov. 2

HERSHEY, Pa. - The portrait of Sen. John Kerry that President Bush sketches in stump speeches could not be less flattering: Kerry is an aloof man, who says the Sept. 11 attacks didn't change him. He lacks moral clarity, saying he voted to support U.S. troops before deciding not to support them. And he shifts with political winds, saying he is a liberal who promotes conservative values.

The picture reflects the Bush camp's strategy of turning the campaign's final days into a personality contest - in essence, a referendum on the challenger.

"Now, the other day in the debate he looked right in the camera," Bush told a large crowd at Hershey Park Stadium. "And he said this about his health care plan: The government has nothing to do with it. I remember him saying that. I was standing right there. I could barely contain myself."

The approach typifies Bush's stump style. He drags in a few words from Kerry and exploits them for a laugh.

Bush employed the tactic several times in his speech here, in an effort to cast the Democratic nominee as out of touch with reality.

The Bush campaign's goal: To use sound bites to sway undecided voters and reassure faithful supporters that Kerry is not likable or trustworthy, while the president is someone they would want to grab lunch with - and see on television for another four years.

Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry adviser, commented this week that the president's message these days is "John Kerry is a bad man, and we can prove it." Other Kerry aides say the Bush strategy is to find diversions to avoid policy debates.

Personal approach

The approach has not gone unnoticed by outside experts. Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University, for one, said the Bush campaign has "been very personal" lately.

"Usually, an incumbent runs on his record," he said. "Here, they clearly have seen from their polling that this is where Kerry has vulnerabilities."

Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former aide to two Republican presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, said Bush might have hit on a strategy that could get him re-elected despite a bloody war in Iraq and economic hardships at home.

"They have had a sharper edge than you have in most incumbent presidential campaigns," he said. "But here is a guy who can't tell people they are better off than they were four years ago on almost any scale.

"When you are president, and the economy has been in decline and Americans are being killed overseas, if you are able to make the election a referendum on your opponent, it is shrewd politicking."

Spotlight on wives

This week, the Bush campaign turned its attack machine on Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, after she suggested that first lady Laura Bush never held a "real job."

Within hours, Heinz Kerry apologized. And yesterday, Laura Bush said she was not offended and no apology was necessary. "I know those trick questions," she said of the interview in which Heinz Kerry made her remark.

But, if the first lady was not hewing to the playbook, others were. Indeed, Heinz Kerry's comment arrived like a free dinner for the campaign.

Bush aides quickly said her remark not only divided women who work outside the home from stay-at-home moms, but might have shown Heinz Kerry is unfit to be first lady.

"Americans have come to associate a certain level of decorum and dignity with the first lady of the United States," Mary Matalin, a senior Bush adviser, said on ABC's Good Morning America. "She's not just the president's wife, she's the first lady of the United States. And it's up to the voters to decide if Teresa Heinz Kerry has always comported herself of that decorum."

Nicolle Devenish, the Bush campaign's communications director, defended the forceful response.

"It was a revealing moment," Devenish said. For voters, she said, the campaign "is a cumulative evaluation of anything you see and hear, and the emotions it evokes."

Earlier this month, Kerry answered a question about homosexuality with a reference to Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian. He also seemed to play into the Bush campaign's hands.

The vice president's wife, Lynne, fired back, saying Kerry was "not a good man."

Other Bush aides said quite dramatically that in the annals of politics they could not remember a candidate bringing up an opponent's child in such a way.

To be sure, Kerry has also taunted Bush.

During a speech to the AARP last week, for example, he responded to Bush's pet slogan - which paraphrases boxing great Joe Louis - that Kerry "can run from his record, but he cannot hide," by quoting Muhammad Ali, who goaded George Foreman during their 1974 heavyweight title match: "George, is that all you got?"

After speaking about Kerry's Iraq vote yesterday, Bush was far from finished as his audience stood in a chilly drizzle. Of his opponent, he said, "Can you imagine being more liberal than [Massachusetts Senator] Ted Kennedy?"

Then he mocked Kerry for wearing camouflage while hunting in Ohio, saying the choice of outfit would not help disguise his record.

"He can even run in camo," Bush said, looking satisfied with the new twist on his favorite line, "but he cannot hide."

Sun staff reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis, traveling with the Kerry campaign, contributed to this article.

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