Over and over, polls tell us that US voters are most concerned about the economy and Iraq. But a visitor from another planet might think Americans are selecting their next president based on one candidate's National Guard service in the early 1970s, another's war and antiwar activities during the same period, and how captive each is by dreaded "special interests."
Add to the mix anything anyone feels moved to circulate over the Internet - baseless or otherwise - and you wind up with a 2004 general-election campaign that, so far, looks more like a wrestling smackdown than a dignified debate over who should hold the world's most powerful job.
The 2004 election will also feature a blend of the new with strong echoes of bygone campaigns - an earlier-than-ever start, allowing for nearly nine months of point and counterpoint and no charge left unanswered. Both teams are fighting demons of the past. For President Bush, one driving animus is to avoid the fate of his father, the 41st president, who was slow to rebut Democratic charges and lost his 1992 reelection bid. For presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, the lessons come from 1988, when another Massachusetts liberal, Michael Dukakis, appeared passive in the face of Republican characterizations and lost the election.
"First, 2004 is different in one sense, because the general election is beginning so early, the process is so front-loaded," says John White, a political scientist at Catholic University. "And yes, it's intense, it's in the gutter, but compared to what? You can make the argument that this country is not just evenly divided, it's intensely divided. That's not altogether dissimilar to the period post-Civil War to roughly 1896."
Last week, the Bush campaign launched its first frontal attack on Senator Kerry with a video called "Unprincipled, Chapter 1," charging the Democrat with being "brought to you by special interests." The video, whose Web-link was sent via e-mail to 6 million Bush-Cheney "e-subscribers," shows terms such as "special interests," "paybacks," and "watchdog groups" being typed into a search engine. One item that pops up is a Washington Post article touting the money Kerry has raised from lobbyists.
The Bush campaign calls the Web video a response to Kerry's own attacks labeling the president a captive of special interests. "To date, John Kerry has harshly attacked President Bush with 15 ads that have aired 9,712 times and cost $4.9 million," the campaign Web release says.
Bush's sagging poll ratings, below 50 percent support on job approval for several weeks, have led the reelection campaign to start fighting back early, analysts say, rather than waiting for the Democrats to officially decide on their nominee. Though the campaign is likely to hold off on paid television ads until the spring, the war is already being waged on many other fronts.
Besides the Internet, the president is putting his bully pulpit to good use, traveling to the electoral battleground state of Florida last weekend, first to connect with NASCAR fans at the Daytona 500, then to talk up the economy with voters in Tampa on Monday.
Still, Bush's most prominent "free TV" of late - his State of the Union address and appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" - has prompted hand-wringing by some conservatives that the president is not on top of his game.
Though there is lots of campaign time ahead, both campaigns are well aware that early impressions can be crucial, and surrogates will do much of the heavy lifting - batting down the other side's accusations and rallying the party faithful. At a speech in Reno, Nev., last week, Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie accused the Democrats of intending to run "the dirtiest campaign in modern presidential politics."
Democrats find that charge laughable. "These folks are well-practiced at the politics of personal destruction," says a Democratic strategist, who cites as Exhibit A the defeat of Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia in 2002, who was charged with being soft on homeland security. "These are the people who accused a guy who had three of his limbs blown off in Vietnam of being unpatriotic; they'll stop at nothing."
The hardball tactics of the 2004 campaign will not thrill the voters, but it also won't lead them to stay home in November, the strategist says. Gary Bauer, a religious conservative activist who ran for president in 2000, isn't so sure. "On both sides, there are a lot of incentives to play tough," says Mr. Bauer, head of the group American Values. "Unfortunately, I think it is a major contributor to turning off a lot of swing voters into not participating at all. This sort of stuff arouses the bases of the two parties, but for the swing voters it just confirms that politics isn't about their jobs, their families, or their future."