Trash talk trumping policy talk

The 2004 presidential campaign seems to have split into two parallel universes.

There's the "daybook" campaign - the daily events, in which the candidates talk about the issues du jour, such as healthcare, gun control, and Iraq. Then there's the character-attack campaign, which for months has centered on questions about both John Kerry's and George W. Bush's actions during the Vietnam era. Now President Bush faces renewed, and incendiary, allegations about him and his family at the hands of celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley.

But any Democrats who are celebrating over the slew of charges against Bush might think again, analysts say. In fact, the net effect could be to hurt Senator Kerry - not because some voters may believe that his campaign is somehow behind the efforts to tar the president, but because the stories take away from the Massachusetts Democrat's ability to focus the campaign on issues.

"Kerry would like to change the dialogue to issues that favor him, and anything that's a distraction from that is to Bush's advantage," says presidential scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M University. Polls show that voters favor Kerry on most issues, such as jobs and healthcare, with terrorism the major exception.

Kerry also faces the inherent challenge of going up against an incumbent president about whom most voters already have a fixed opinion, positive or negative. With just seven weeks to go before Election Day, many voters say they still don't know Kerry well enough to judge his character, and so he is more vulnerable to unfavorable portrayals than is the president. Pollsters tend to believe that the charges raised by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam vets who have questioned his war medals, have hurt the senator's image among some voters.

The real question, then, may center on how undecided voters are processing all the charges, including alleged, newly unearthed memos dating back to Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s - and subsequent allegations that the memos are forgeries. The memos, allegedly written by a military superior of Bush who is no longer alive, state that Bush failed to follow orders and lost his pilot status because he did not meet performance standards and skipped a physical exam.

Added to the mix this week is a new book by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who assigns blame high in the Bush administration for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and also blames the administration for allowing Iraq to deflect attention from the war on terrorism.

Undecided voters are "confused and will continue to be confused," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Those who decide to actually go vote will probably make some kind of impulsive decision later on."

For Bush, there may be an advantage in having undecideds stay home. Historically, voters who remain undecided this late are more likely to end up voting for the challenger than for the incumbent. Presidential adviser Karl Rove has often called the key to this race "base mobilization" - that is, getting natural Bush supporters who don't have a strong history of voting to actually turn out this time, rather than trying to convince the skeptical. Mr. Rove often mentions the 4 million religious conservatives who didn't turn out in 2000 as fertile territory for the 2004 Bush campaign.

Turnout experts continue to predict a relatively high rate of voting in this race - with interest remaining intense among partisans on both sides. Polling by the Pew Research Center has shown interest in this year's race 10 to 15 percentage points higher than it was four years ago. Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, continues to predict higher turnout than in the past two elections because of the high emotions.

Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center, agrees - with a caveat based on the negativity and attacks coming from both campaigns, which could tamp down some of the enthusiasm for voting. "But," he adds, "the stakes are so large in this election that based on everything we've seen, this engagement level is very strong, and the tone would have to get pretty negative for it to turn people off."

Independent pollster John Zogby has long been saying that the key to a Bush victory is to lower voter enthusiasm for turning out. As of now, he says, Bush appears to be succeeding. "The strategy is simple: If there are only 50 voters left, just make sure I get my 26," he says. "Bush wins in the war on terrorism, and loses on everything else. But Kerry is off his game.... If Kerry can get it back to the economy and healthcare and stem-cell research, he wins. But he has to get his footing."

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