Defining week: Bush sets tone for trailing Democrats

If you wondered what President Bush's reelection campaign was going to sound like, now you know. The last few weeks, coupled with the State of the Union address, have made it clear.

It is a two-pronged approach. Bush 2004: Keeping America Safe. And Bush 2004: Who Wants Ice Cream?

Half the time the president will be doing patriotic photo ops, not necessarily harping on 9/11 but echoing it. He will talk about how he saved the nation from the Iraqi menace and how he's "confronting the regimes that harbor and support terrorists, and could supply them with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons." Yes, that's could supply - a lengthy list that includes some of our allies.

This will dovetail nicely with the Republican convention, which is slated for New York and just so happens to start so late it will end in September near the third anniversary of 9/11.

Everyone expected this approach from Mr. Bush. National security has been his trump card for the past two years. But it is the free ice cream that may prove more critical to the president in the area where he is softest, domestic policy.

You may not like the president, but you have to give him credit; he covers his bases. No matter what demographic group you're part of or what you care about, the president has a treat for you.

Like your tax cut? Well, he wants to make it permanent.

Like the moon or Mars? Hey, we're going - to both.

Think healthcare costs too much? He's fighting for lower costs and a tax credit for you.

Unemployed and need job retraining? He's even got some money for that; not a lot, but some.

Oh, yeah, and if you're worried about that half-a-trillion dollar deficit, don't be. He's going to halve it in five years. How? Well, through fiscal discipline, of course.

This is not completely unexpected. You can tell an election year is near when the proposals start flooding out of the White House. But the president's plans pay so little heed to financial realities this country faces it is impossible to take the ideas seriously.

The strategy is simple - talk up national security, while at the same time flooding the airwaves with so many feel-good proposals that the debate gets lost in specifics and people don't pay attention to the larger environment.

The storm clouds may be forming - looming Social Security shortfalls, deficits for the foreseeable future, untold billions being spent in the war on terror and in Iraq - but the president sees only sunny days ahead.

In fact, that is one of this White House's defining characteristics - its sunny disposition.

The Democrats recognize this and, after all the who's up and who's down, the real story of the Iowa results is the battle within the party over how exactly to handle it. Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry offer very different approaches.

Senator Edwards has opted for the path of sweetness and light. He doesn't want to attack the president. He wants to offer his own, to use his phraseology (as he does ... often), "positive, uplifting vision of America." He comes not to bury George W. Bush as much as to point how he can make America better. There is the appearance of a layer of naive goodness on the top of Edwards's approach that masks a shrewder strategy.

He represents the wing of the Democratic party that sees Bush's folksy upbeat method to politics and thinks the way to attack it is by bringing even more "aw, shucks" optimism to the battle. The game here is to see who can create the most sunshine.

Senator Kerry, on the other hand, has opted for the in-your-face approach that Howard Dean rode to the top of the polls until Iowa. Kerry may have found his footing last week talking about Vietnam and his personal story, but his victory speech was pure Dean. In fact as he stood on the stage calling out "bring it on" to his fired-up supporters, one couldn't help feeling that Kerry had out-Deaned Dean. He had controlled, up-tempo ire, plus a war hero's record to boot. (Meanwhile Mr. Dean was across town spinning out of control in a speech that looked as if it were directed at overcaffeinated third-graders. Whoo!)

Coming out of Iowa, Kerry represents Democrats who believe the way to attack Bush's smiling aura is to call him out, to point out his administration's mistakes and see if voters want to hold him accountable. And this is the real point of the weeks ahead for the Democrats.

The caucus voters in Iowa and Democrats around the country seem to be calculating who can beat Bush, and that calculation may be more about tone than résumé or positions. The individuals aren't the main attraction here. The question is more basic.

Is it better to counter ice cream with warm sunshine or bitter reality? That's what the Democrats have to decide.

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