Kerry, the happy warrior, vs. the defensive smirk

Maybe John Kerry should visit home more often. Thursday night's speech showed a swagger many Americans hadn't seen in the usually staid senator. There was a sense of confidence. And as he gave President Bush backhanded semicompliments, and even took outright slaps at him, Senator Kerry wore an almost knowing smile.

The biggest image to emerge from Boston last week was John Kerry as happy warrior. He didn't just accept the nomination - he grabbed it greedily with both hands. The desire that filled the Fleet Center during the convention seemed to fill him, and it has stuck with him since on the inevitable bus tour that followed.

It would be easy to write it all off as posing and some of it probably is. How one carries oneself before the cameras and the crowds is more than half of selling oneself as a candidate. But in Kerry's case, there's more to it than just appearances. He's feeling pretty good, because considering how close this election is likely to be, Kerry is in a good position.

As the next batch of polls emerges, campaign surrogates will debate the bump Kerry did or didn't get, but it will be largely moot. The Massachusetts senator did well for himself last week by positioning himself smartly for the race ahead: hawkish on military matters, concerned about those struggling economically and, most important, comfortable in his own skin.

Meanwhile as the Bush campaign tooled through the same states on its bus tour, confidence seemed to be flowing this weekend. The president was more emphatic on the stump. He sometimes leaned so far over his lectern into the crowd that it looked as if he wanted to go body surfing. And the smirk was back.

But it's not clear exactly what the president has to be confident about. The dynamics of this race should be troubling to him.

The nation's economic downturn is not all his fault, but any pickup in employment figures probably will come too late to help him now.

The violence in Iraq continues. Outside Kabul, Afghanistan is a mess - last week Doctors Without Borders left the country.

At home, the federal deficit just climbed to a new record.

For now at least the divided electorate is keeping things close, but for how long and to what end? Remember Mr. Bush's margin was razor thin in 2000, and holding onto all those votes and hoping for another squeaker is an extremely risky strategy. Being the incumbent means you have a record for people to disagree with and pick apart.

It also means laying out a plan for voters.

Bush's response to Kerry so far has been predictable and perhaps even smart: Attack the Democratic nominee to weaken the possible bump he was going to get out of his convention. But in the end, it must be a short-lived strategy. This election isn't a referendum on Kerry, it's a referendum on Bush, and polls show people are unsure about him. Bush faces the Alfie question: What's a second term all about?

And this is where Bush faces a large obstacle. It's difficult to explain exactly what the president stands for beyond tax cuts and "taking the war to the terrorists" (which could hurt the president by November if Iraq's simmering problems begin to boil over or Afghanistan crumbles). It's easy to say the attacks on Sept. 11 overtook his presidency, but even before Al Qaeda entered the mix, Bush's agenda was foggy.

His major initiatives have not been successes.

No Child Left Behind, Bush's education plan, has been derided by school administrators and state legislatures around the country. His prescription drug plan is viewed skeptically by seniors and doesn't address the larger problem of people without coverage.

Even his signature issue, lowering taxes, does not have the power it once did. After several rounds of tax cuts, surveys indicate the issue has lost most of its zing with voters.

So what exactly is the rationale for another term for President Bush?

Bush faces an unenviable choice. He must begin to make the case for a new approach, something that would suggest that many of the policies of the past four years were a mistake. Or he must promise four more years of the same and hope that's what people want.

Either way, John Kerry's smile is likely to grow.

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