Ads' ferocity rises as days tick away

Race remains deadlocked, prompting Kerry and Bush to trade sharp ads that analysts say stretch bounds of fairness.

With hundreds of millions of dollars in ads, two national conventions, and now three presidential debates behind them, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are entering the final two-week stretch of the campaign in the same position they've been in for most of the year: tied.

Although the candidates have lately traded swings of momentum - and one may yet find a way to break the race open - they appear increasingly likely to spend the remaining days fighting for every inch of ground, trying to eke out a win by whatever means possible.

Each man faces significant obstacles toward gaining a decisive edge: Mr. Bush's approval ratings are hovering at or below 50 percent, dangerously low for an incumbent, with a majority of Americans saying the country is heading in the wrong direction. While Bush had gone to some lengths to disqualify his opponent, spending millions on attack ads labeling him a "flip-flopper," Senator Kerry appears to have erased at least some of that damage with strong debate performances.

But Kerry's last, best opportunity to shift the dynamics of the race may have been the debates - a rare forum where he could stand toe to toe with the president - and while that brought him to parity, after trailing Bush for several weeks, it did not provide him with a lead. Indeed, several national polls over the weekend actually showed Bush ticking back up slightly, though the two remain in a statistical dead heat.

Both campaigns have already launched an escalating blur of sound bites and attacks - running through a dizzying range of issues in the search for even a slight advantage, as the focus shifts toward getting out the vote. "[The race] is kind of like a boat that is drifting at this junction - and it's waiting for a final tip," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "These last two weeks are probably going to be more contentious than we've seen. The decibel level is going to get higher."

In recent days, the attacks coming from both sides have grown more pointed - and, to observers on both sides, more desperate.

Kerry has released a slew of new ads attacking Bush for everything from the flu vaccine shortage to claiming the president plans a "January surprise" to privatize Social Security. He has also been arguing that a reinstatement of the draft would be more likely under a Bush presidency - a claim Bush has flatly and repeatedly denied, and which campaign manager Ken Mehlman called an "entirely inappropriate" effort to "frighten voters."

For his part, Bush has once again been pounding Kerry for his vote against the $87 billion in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan - a vote Kerry cast one year ago this weekend - and running ads attacking Kerry's healthcare plan as a massive government takeover (a claim independent analysts describe as misleading). The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, released a new ad calling Kerry "the most liberal person ever to run for president."

"What we're seeing out of them is a level of hysteria that is sort of shocking," says one Kerry adviser.

To Kerry aides, Bush's recent attacks on the Massachusetts senator's alleged liberalism represents a "major shift in strategy" - and an unspoken acknowledgment that the previous line of attack, labeling Kerry a flip-flopper, may no longer prove as fruitful. By presenting an image of steadiness and constancy over nearly five hours of debates, they say, Kerry effectively undid some $100 million in negative advertising.

But it's unclear how effective Bush's attacks on Kerry's liberalism will prove to be. While polls show that some two-thirds of the public does regard Kerry as "liberal," the campaign still has to get voters to think beyond "the label of liberal, to the negative impact of electing a liberal," says Mr. Fabrizio.

In some ways, tagging Kerry as an ultraliberal even contradicts the "flip-flopping" line of attack - implying a consistent ideology rather than a tendency to shift with the political winds.

And, as Democrats point out, Bush is hardly an ideal messenger to deliver an attack about big government and spending: "George Bush is the greatest liberal spender in American history," says Democratic strategist Steve Jarding. "He has officially - it's not even close - spent more money than any president in history."

Kerry's task over the next two weeks will be to keep the focus on Bush's record - and try to keep Bush's job-approval rating under 50 percent, a level that analysts say would make it difficult for the president to win reelection.

But Bush will try to recreate a negative image of his opponent, pounding on Kerry's own Senate record. Republicans note that Kerry has had trouble breaking the 50-percent barrier on head-to-head polls, even after successful debate performances. Even some Democrats say Kerry faces a significant challenge in maintaining his momentum, as the campaign moves away from the expansive 90-minute exchanges, that showed Kerry in his best light, to a phase of sound bites and staged events, in which Bush has tended to excel.

"Going down the home stretch, I would almost in some ways give Bush a slight edge," says Mr. Jarding. "Kerry's momentum was gained almost entirely through these joint appearances - and [now] he doesn't have that at his disposal."

While some analysts believe the rise in new voter registrations could lead to a massive turnout that ultimately favors Democrats, Republicans point out that their base has had greater intensity for most of the year and may actually prove more reliable when it comes to turnout.

"Most of [the Democrats'] intensity is anti-Bush rather than pro-Kerry," says Republican strategist Charlie Black. "Maybe Kerry can firm it and get a good turnout, but it's iffy."

Tracking poll: How likely voters plan to cast their ballots

For George W. Bush 48 %

For John Kerry 45

For Ralph Nader 2

Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, Oct. 13-16. Margin of error: 3.5 percent.

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