WASHINGTON — The 2004 election may be eight months away. But the already sharp jockeying between President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry underscores a fundamental reality: These first rounds are likely to set the course - and potentially even determine the outcome - of the whole campaign.
Much of the race so far has focused on the president, with Democrats lobbing criticism at Mr. Bush rather than each other throughout the primary season. The attacks have had a clear impact, with most polls now showing Bush trailing Senator Kerry.
But Bush is working hard to shift attention to his challenger, engaging him unusually early in a calculated effort to define the Massachusetts senator before he can define himself. Indeed, while strategists on both sides agree that reelection campaigns are ultimately about rehiring or firing the incumbent, almost as central to the equation is how voters feel about the candidate trying to replace him. And although voters ostensibly will have plenty of time to get to know the Massachusetts senator, early impressions often prove the most important - and lasting.
"Kerry first has to make the case that the president should not be rehired, but he also has to make the case that he's an acceptable alternative," says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist from Georgia. "And that means he's got to do more than pound on the president."
Already, Bush is moving swiftly to cast his opponent as a pro-tax, anti-defense-spending liberal with a tendency to waffle on issues. But while Kerry has been quick to respond, leaving no attack unanswered, he's been slower to define himself in positive terms. Part of the problem is a lack of cash. Bush, sitting on a record war chest, went on the air last week with his first ads (message: "Steady leadership in a time of change"), and is likely to unveil negative spots targeting Kerry in coming weeks.
In what may be a glimpse of themes to come, an outside group began running an anti-Kerry ad over the weekend, highlighting the senator's expensive haircuts, his homes, and his yacht, and concluding: "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people. Priceless."
By contrast, Kerry is currently relying almost entirely on ads by outside groups - who can criticize Bush and his policies, but are unable to promote Kerry explicitly - while he gears up for a fundraising push.
Kerry's challenge has also been heightened by the nominating process, which allowed him to emerge earlier and with much less scrutiny than most nominees. Although he received a flood of media coverage during the height of the primary battle, particularly in contested states, analysts say he remains largely unknown in many of the states holding primaries after the competition was effectively over - such as Florida, whose primary Tuesday was essentially a foregone conclusion.
"Kerry's got to raise a lot of money and get into the battleground states - get a foothold [there], so that when Bush comes after him, he has something to hold onto," says independent pollster Dick Bennett.
Many of Bush's early attacks have focused on Kerry's voting record; this week, Bush highlighted a bill Kerry introduced in 1995 to cut intelligence spending.
At a recent Monitor breakfast, Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, insisted both candidates will be judged largely by the stands they've taken and what they've accomplished. "Definitions are not provided by ad men and political operatives," he said. "They're provided by people's records." Kerry's record, Mr. Mehlman said, points to a history of voting to cut defense spending and raise taxes.
To some extent, Kerry faces a challenge simply in the fact that his Senate record is so long. Many of his votes were based on completely different circumstances, and may have involved a number of complicated tradeoffs, most of which have now been forgotten. Indeed, analysts say, it's one of the reasons so few senators make it to the presidency.
"Sometimes what you want in a candidate is somebody who knows how to lead but has absolutely no record," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "In the context of when they cast these votes, it made perfect sense. But in the context of a changed world, it doesn't necessarily make sense."
Yet Kerry's advisers say if anyone has a tough record to defend, it's Bush, who has created a mess in Iraq and may become the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss in jobs during his term. Bush's ads - which attempted to neutralize some of these problems by explaining that the nation has faced an unprecedented series of challenges, but has now turned the corner - were notably short on specific accomplishments, and never even mentioned Iraq.
While Bush may feel the need to explain that "all the bad things aren't my fault," the response of most voters is likely to be: "Well, OK, but what are you going to do about them?" says Mr. Bennett.
Democrats close to the Kerry campaign say he is likely to unveil a more specific, positive message in coming weeks, as he completes the pivot from the primary to the general election. It's likely to draw on his Vietnam experience, and may in part emphasize his refusal to leave anyone behind - a theme that casts an implicit critique on Bush's "Leave no Child Behind," and is neatly illustrated by the story of Kerry's turning back his boat in Vietnam to rescue a fellow serviceman.
Still, distributing this message will compete with other priorities - namely, raising money and, in the immediate future, getting some much-needed rest. After next week's Illinois primary, Kerry is scheduled for a short break before embarking on a national fundraising tour.