Dizzying pace of the '04 campaign

As Bush and Kerry race through states and a maze of issues, the challenge is to be quick enough to seize on the theme of the hour.

In an election that could hinge on a few percentage points in a few tossup states, the search for advantage by President Bush and Sen. John Kerry has reached a dizzying pace.

Campaign appearances in multiple states each day and topics of debate that can shift hour to hour are making it difficult for even political junkies to keep up. But more than just a rerun of the impossibly tight race in 2000, the 2004 campaign is infused with an intensity dictated by the times.

"This is the biggest election year since 1980, and the third-biggest since the start of the second half of the 20th century," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, citing 1968 as the other big year. He defines a "big election" as one that is dominated both by macro issues and a welter of other important issues, all clamoring for attention.

Both Mr. Bush and Senator Kerry have already discovered that they have to be far more nimble than presidential candidates in most election years. As reflected in the dead-heat opinion polls, neither has gained a clear advantage. Sometimes, one stumbles - as analysts agree Kerry did on Monday, when he took the bait and answered Bush's question about whether he would have authorized an invasion of Iraq even knowing that no weapons of mass destruction would be found. Kerry said yes, and has been playing defense on the issue ever since.

But the issue landscape is so packed that Kerry and his surrogates can mitigate any negatives from one miscue by focusing on the plethora of other areas where he is beating the president, such as the economy, stem-cell research, and the environment.

Still, so far this week, Bush has used incumbency to his benefit by taking action - nominating a new director of central intelligence - leaving Kerry and Co. to kibitz from the sidelines.

The choice of Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida to run the CIA comes just two weeks after the White House had indicated there was no rush to replace George Tenet, who left the post on July 11. But when Kerry appeared to make inroads into Bush's advantage in polls on terrorism, Bush changed course. Now he has the Democrats back on their heels, as they raise cautious objections to the retiring Congressman Goss, a former CIA operative and current chairman of the House intelligence committee, Democrats say Goss is not the best candidate for the job, in part because he is a politician and an intelligence insider at a time when reform is required.

But Democrats have also conceded that Senate confirmation is likely, given the politicized atmosphere and the desire not to appear obstructive when the terrorism threat is high and US intelligence needs are paramount. When asked on NBC's "Today Show" Wednesday if Bush had set up a "win-win" situation for himself, Sen. Dick Durbin (D) agreed. Then he added: "I think the White House is playing this politically and I think that's unfortunate."

On the plus side for Kerry this week has been the debate over embryonic stem-cell research, a topic widely misunderstood by the public - and which Kerry has successfully turned to his advantage as a wedge issue. The Kerry team routinely refers to Bush's "ban" on federal funding of research, but in fact, Bush three years ago announced a compromise allowing the use of federal funds, for the first time, to study human embryonic stem cells. The condition was that no human embryos would be destroyed, a provision that satisfied religious conservatives important to Bush's political base. This line of research is held out as having potential in the battle against diseases such as Alzheimer's.

But today, many see the administration as "banning" stem-cell research. Democrats have been helped by the remarks of President Reagan's widow, Nancy, and son, Ron. A May Gallup Poll showed 54 percent of the public believes that "medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos" is morally acceptable.

The first lady, Laura Bush, the president's most popular surrogate, this week put forth the counterargument on such research, saying its potential is often exaggerated and that its moral implications must remain a priority.

The No. 1 issue to voters - the economy - is one of the trickiest for either side to tease out a clear advantage. But each campaign is trying, early and often. When disappointing job-creation numbers were released last Friday - only 32,000 new jobs for July, far below expectations - Democrats believed they had a killer issue against the president. But Republicans have fought back, armed with their own statistics, starting with the overall unemployment rate, which dropped slightly, to 5.4 percent.

"You can't focus on one economic statistic in isolation," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "This is a huge economy with lots of different measures. Unemployment is now the same as it was when Bill Clinton was touting a booming economy in 1996. Consumer confidence surged in July."

But ultimately, he says, the public doesn't pay much attention to economic statistics. What matters is "whether Joe next door is keeping his job or getting laid off," he says. "By that measure, the economy is improving."

Not so fast, say Democrats, who argue that "Joe average," particularly in many key Midwestern battleground states, isn't doing as well as he used to be. Maybe he has a job, but there's a good chance he's not making as much as before, and with gas prices remaining high, he's feeling the squeeze, they say.

The ping-pong match over the economy will continue until Nov 2. As Bush gears up for the GOP convention, he's trying to keep expectations low, a trademark political tactic. His campaign predicts no post-convention bounce - though Gallup Poll editor in chief Frank Newport doesn't rule one out.

Still, no one doubts that by Labor Day, the traditional start of the homestretch, it's anyone's guess who wins. And, some say, there's a good chance the result could be a rerun of 2000: one man winning the popular vote, the other winning the Electoral College.

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