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On eve of GOP convention, what's in Bush's favor

By John Hughes / August 25, 2004



JACKSON HOLE, WYO.

This resort town in the Tetons is used to political celebrities and takes them in its stride. Usually they come and go, undisturbed and unremarked upon by the laid-back folks who live here. When he was president, Bill Clinton ambled around town in summer buying pizzas. Members of the Kennedy clan visit, and must stand in line just like anybody else. When James Baker was secretary of State, he brought Eduard Shevardnadze, his counterpart from Moscow, here for a summit meeting. Vice President Cheney has a home here and can often be seen placidly fly-fishing along the Snake River.

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But given the heat of the presidential election campaign, Mr. Cheney's regular visits using Air Force Two have roused partisan feelings. In last week's issue of the town's weekly paper, the Jackson Hole News, letter-writer Kevin Pusey huffed about the "lack of respect for the environment, the overconsumption of gas and oil, and wastage of taxpayers' dollars," caused by the "oversized" plane's visits, accompanied by "helicopters, army trucks and gas-guzzling SUV's."

The Wagner family riposted: "We welcome the choppers and always wave. We appreciate your work."

This unaccustomed tetchiness seems to reflect the rigid partisanship in the nation at large over what seems to be an increasingly close presidential election campaign.

As Republicans get set to laud - and protesters to lambaste - President Bush in New York next week, the president and Senator Kerry are running neck and neck. The big critical states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida are hotly contested, and the votes of the narrow sliver of independent swing voters are likely to carry the day.

What are some of the factors Bush can hope to capitalize upon and push him over the top?

• Firstly there will be the expected postconvention pop in the polls resulting from the widespread media coverage in New York.

• Then there is the spat over Kerry's military record in Vietnam. Frankly, the continuing carping over both Kerry's wartime service and Bush's service as a Texas National Guard fighter-pilot strikes me as somewhat tedious. As far as Bush is concerned, flying jet fighters is hardly a task for the wimpish. As for Kerry, running a swift boat in the Mekong Delta similarly takes guts. In my own time as a correspondent in Vietnam, I spent a few days with a swift squadron, and it is no fun racing down narrow rivers trying to draw Viet Cong fire from the jungle-covered banks.

But Kerry has unwisely made his military service the focal point of his campaign. Diverted from the substantive issues, he has been obliged to concentrate on defending his own ballyhooed war record, rather than taking the fight to Bush. This has worked to the president's advantage.

• In the candidates' debates four years ago, Al Gore came across as a more knowledgeable policy wonk, but Bush was warm and human. In the Bush-Kerry debates, Bush may similarly appeal to those swing voters as the more likable. Despite all Kerry's efforts to appear a regular guy, he is still fighting the image of a patrician and somewhat arrogant New Englander who has spent the years since Vietnam calculating his path to the presidency.

• One of Bush's secret weapons may be his wife, Laura. Voters don't vote for the first lady. But they do appraise the spouse who will stand alongside the president. Mrs. Bush comes across as smart and wholesome. As she proved on the Jay Leno show, she can also be quite a comic cutup. A Harris Poll earlier this year put her appeal rating at a whopping 79 percent.

Teresa Heinz Kerry is also a very smart woman, but an unpredictable activist who, like her husband, sometimes conveys an aura of complexity.

• Both Bush and Kerry have taken swipes at each other, but the meanness toward, and disrespect for, a sitting president that has characterized some of the attacks on Bush - particularly Hollywood's - may well trigger a backlash of sympathy in his favor.

• One more prospect - that we all must pray will not happen - would be a major terrorist attack by Al Qaeda on the American homeland before November. Traditionally such events cause Americans to rally around the president.

Other unpredictable events in Iraq, or with the American economy, or in the capture of Osama bin Laden, could similarly be pluses or minuses for Bush. For now, despite the enthusiastic Republican clamor pending in New York, it continues to look like a close race.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, in Salt Lake City.

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