Politico's off-season guide

Speculation over a Kerry running mate reaches fever pitch, but the race remains a baffling pundit's paradise.

In these sleepy summer days before the start of convention season, politicos nationwide are left with only two options: (1) Try to surmise whom John Kerry will select to join him on the Democratic ticket; or (2) come up with the perfect formula for predicting who will win the presidency in November.

The first one is easy: Only Senator Kerry knows for sure what's happening in the veepstakes, leaving those outside his campaign free to speculate - or stake out his house in Georgetown. The stakeout option led ABC News to report that Rep. Dick Gephardt may be The One, though when confronted, the Missouri Democrat refuted the theory.

That leaves theorizing about November, and the various rules of thumb that pundits hold onto as they try to be first on their block to predict correctly who will be the next president. The two numbers that count the most, at this stage, are President Bush's job-approval rating and the public's assessment of whether the nation is on the "right track."

Bush's latest job-approval numbers - in the low to mid-40s - put him in clear danger of losing in November. In the modern political era, the only sitting president to win reelection with such a low summer job approval is President Truman in 1948. The "wrong track" number - 57 percent, in the latest New York Times/CBS News poll - also works against Bush.

Still, few pundits are willing to predict with any certainty that Bush will lose the election - particularly because he is still in a dead heat with Kerry, who remains a cipher to many voters.

But is it also possible, some political analysts ask, that a whole new paradigm could be at play, as the nation prepares to elect a president for the first time since 9/11. In particular, predicts pollster Raghavan Mayur, Americans will place extra emphasis on national security and leadership - a quality on which Bush still beats Kerry.

"President Bush seems to have accumulated a cache of what I call leadership points, since 9/11," says Mr. Mayur, who conducts polls for The Christian Science Monitor. "There was 9/11 itself, then the Afghan war, catching Saddam Hussein, freeing Iraqis."

In his June poll, Mayur found that 57 percent of Americans see Bush as a strong leader versus 42 percent who see Kerry this way. Bush also beats Kerry handily for an image of "resoluteness" - a quality that liberals would define as "stubbornness." Mayur reports 83 percent of Americans believe Bush stands firm on his beliefs, while Kerry scores at only 48 percent.

Even the latest New York Times/CBS poll, which is full of warning signs for the president, reports that Americans believe Bush would be better than Kerry at leading the nation in a time of foreign crisis and in protecting the country from more terrorist attacks.

One result of this leadership tilt toward Bush is in the intensity of support for him. Mayur reports that intensity among Bush voters is 70 percent, compared with 44 percent for Kerry. Republicans are also happier with their choice: 43 percent are "very satisfied," compared with 12 percent of Democrats.

All this could change at the end of July, when the Democrats hold their national convention. Kerry will have announced his vice-presidential selection by then - the first real window into his presidential decision-making style - and then will have had his moment in the national spotlight with his acceptance speech.

By then, he'll need to start closing the deal with voters. The rule of thumb is that elections involving an incumbent are a referendum on the incumbent - but the second part of that rule is that the challenger has to sell himself.

"By historical standards, at this point in the race, Bush is not in the kind of trouble that his father or Jimmy Carter were in; people had clearly become disillusioned with the incumbent," says John Green, a political analyst at the University of Akron.

Professor Green characterizes the current President Bush as "in the middle" - not sure to lose, but vulnerable. "Now what Kerry has to do is present himself as an affirmative alternative," he says.

Some Democrats are privately worried that Kerry has not been able to capitalize more effectively on Bush's woes - the Iraqi prison scandal, the almost-daily US casualties in Iraq, the spike in gas prices - and believe Kerry should actually be 10 points ahead of Bush in the presidential horse race rather than at a dead heat.

But analysts say Kerry has plenty of time to make his case to Americans.

"It's a little early for the Democrats to be pushing the panic button," says Scott Keeter, associate director of the Pew Research Center. "More than likely, the election is really going to be determined by things that haven't happened yet."

If the economic recovery sustains its momentum, Bush will benefit. The images of Saddam Hussein in the dock last week provided a welcome diversion out of Iraq for the Bush administration.

Already, though, the Bush campaign is handicapping the impact of the Democratic convention - and the fall debates - on the race, predicting that Kerry will leave Boston 10 points ahead of Bush. Bush campaign officials have also begun praising Kerry's debating skills, in the time-honored tradition of lowering expectations.

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