THE FIRST VOLLEY of the 2004 general election came last Saturday, March 6, four days after John Kerry became the de facto Democratic nominee by driving John Edwards from the race. For three years, the Democrats had responded to President Bush's regular Saturday radio address with a rotating cast of mid-wattage pols. At the height of Bush's popularity, nothing better emphasized the stature gap between the wartime president and his hapless opposition than listening to, say, Debbie Stabenow carp about prescription drugs after a Bush address celebrating the overthrow of the Taliban. But, on Saturday, the Democrats handed over their weekly turn at the microphone to Kerry.
His aides thought hard about what to say. "The first head-to-head thing they had in this campaign was the radio address," says a senior Kerry adviser. "We could have done health care or jobs," issues where Kerry has huge advantages over Bush. Instead, Kerry talked about defense. "In the midst of the war on terror," he said, "no job is more important for a president than the duty of our commander-in-chief to provide for the common defense." Bush, he charged, was undermining America's safety. "Today, our security is being weakened, our military is being overextended, our reserves overstrained, and our allies driven away," Kerry declared. Not many Americans listen to these weekly radio chats, but that was hardly the point. The Kerry campaign was trying to send a message. Says the adviser, "That was a way of saying that we're going to take away the one asset he thinks he is going to have."
The general-election campaign will be a long eight months, and it would be folly to ascribe too much significance to Kerry and Bush's opening skirmishes. But the last week has shown that, once again, the early conventional wisdom about this race was wrong. This spring was supposed to be the period where a dangerously underfunded Kerry pivoted from a bloody primary season into the fist of Bush's early advertising. Instead, it is Kerry who has knocked Bush off balance and taken the lead in most public polls. Kerry's aides are buoyant. Republicans are suddenly panicked. Round one to John Kerry.
THERE ARE THREE reasons Kerry is controlling the debate so far. First, he is playing on Bush's turf. That was the purpose of making the military the subject of his response to the president's radio address. Polls show Kerry with wide leads on the economy, creating jobs, the budget deficit, and health care. With Kerry pressing him to defend his national security record, Bush hasn't had time to start inoculating himself on these issues: Instead of emphasizing the economy or health care, Bush's first ads have tried to shore up what should be his unquestioned strength, his post-September 11 leadership. Kerry, meanwhile, has made some inroads here. A Washington Post poll almost one year ago showed a 51-point gap between Bush and the Democrats on the issue of terrorism. This week, the same poll shows Kerry narrowing the gap to 21 points. That's still a chasm, but it is evidence that Kerry has at least begun to chip into Bush's lead.
The sense that Bush is on the defensive is mirrored in the state polling as well. A Gallup survey out this week shows that, in the twelve closest states from the 2000 election (which split evenly, six to Bush and six to Al Gore), Kerry is beating the president by an average of 16 points, 55 to 39 percent. A review of all the state polls released over the last month finds that Bush does not lead in a single state he lost in 2000, while Kerry has early leads in several Bush states, including Florida, Missouri, and New Hampshire.
The second reason the Kerry campaign is starting the general election in a better position than anyone predicted is that it is exhibiting an aggressiveness that has caught the White House off guard. For all the Republican bluster about how they expected Kerry to wage a ruthless campaign, the Bush team seemed unprepared for it. Both sides insist that the other campaign is merciless and will do anything to get elected, but it's Kerry's aides who act like they really believe it. "The one thing that we've learned about this White House is they have no shame about what they will say as long as they think it will be effective," says David Wade, Kerry's spokesman. "These are tough, fierce, ruthless adversaries." The White House has governed for three years without strong opposition from either Democrats or a scandal- chasing press, while Kerry's aides already seem battle-hardened. They wonder if the Bush campaign expected them to run a timid and defensive campaign la Michael Dukakis in 1988, when in fact they've been studying Bill Clinton in 1992. "That was a campaign that believed in the doctrine of rapid response," says Wade, "and this is a campaign that knows you have to fight back and that the best defense is a good offense." Adds a top Kerry aide, "The lesson of Clinton '92 is you just never let up."
BUT THE MOST important reason for Kerry's early success is the simple fact of Bush's recent decline. Asked recently if Kerry's attacks were a big concern, Terry Holt, Bush's campaign spokesman, brushed them off, explaining to me that there were really only two things that could derail Bush: "self-inflicted wounds" or "circumstances beyond our control." Both plague Bush of late. The self-inflicted wounds seem to come with every major move Bush makes. The State of the Union address quickly became a punch line about Martians and steroids. Bush's subsequent appearance on "Meet the Press" was panned across the political spectrum. And a third strike came with the unveiling of his much- hyped TV ads, which the campaign was still defending from criticism about their use of September 11 images a full week after their release.
Still, embarrassing as these missteps have been, the circumstances beyond Bush's control are probably even more worrisome to him. Bush is approaching the point, about six months out from Election Day, where views about the economy harden. (In 1992, remember, his father lost despite the fact that the recession had ended and growth had returned.) And, despite positive signs, such as the signing of a provisional constitution this week, Iraq could reemerge as a problem for Bush at any time should American soldiers be killed or the political situation deteriorate. Add to this a number of slowly percolating stories, any one of which might (or might not) emerge as an administration scandal-the report by the 9/11 Commission, the Supreme Court ruling on Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force documents, the ongoing investigations into the Valerie Plame leak and the GOP theft of Democratic files on the Senate Judiciary Committee, etc.-and Holt's concern is understandable. (Of course, the flip side is that a good "circumstance beyond their control," such as the capture of Osama bin Laden, would give Bush a major boost.) Still, it's ironic that, in a year when the political press has focused largely on the roller- coaster ride of the Democratic primaries, the real story may actually have been happening on the Republican side. "Frankly, Bush's collapse is way more important and dramatic than what happened to [Howard] Dean," says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network.
The campaign is only beginning, and its first week won't likely tell us much about its ultimate outcome. But the Kerry camp thinks they have laid down a crucial marker. "There is something important about the first encounter and who blinks," says Wade. "I think they've been caught off guard."
This article appeared in the March 22, 2004 issue of the magazine.