Modest gains in the message war

Despite Bush and Kerry's attempts to define each other, the war and 9/11 capture attention.

Weeks of intense politicking and millions of dollars in ads have helped the Bush campaign make some headway in its effort to define Sen. John Kerry as a liberal waffler who's weak on defense.

But even more important has been the dominance of external events, which have created new and unexpected challenges for both candidates. The violence in Iraq and the furor surrounding the 9/11 commission hearings has made it far more difficult for Mr. Kerry to break through with messages on the economy and other issues, or to put out his own biographical sketch.

Yet all the commotion may also have diluted some of Mr. Bush's attacks on Kerry. The result: Polls show the overall contours of the race remaining tight several months into the campaign, with the president recently regaining a slight edge.

The president holds a narrow lead over Kerry in the latest Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post polls, both of which had Kerry leading throughout February and early March. Bush has also improved his edge over Kerry on issues like Iraq and terrorism, while reducing Kerry's advantage on the economy.

In a memo to reporters, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd argued that the campaign "has been successful at defining the race," noting that in focus groups swing voters have described Kerry as indecisive and likely to raise taxes.

And indeed, some shifts can be attributed directly to attacks from the Bush campaign: After weeks of portraying Kerry as flip-flopping on issues, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found only 4 in 10 voters see Kerry as someone who "takes a position and sticks with it," while 8 in 10 have that view of Bush. Likewise, the percentage of voters regarding him as honest and as a strong leader both dropped by some 10 points.

But the Bush team also recently cut back its ad campaign - leading some analysts to speculate that some of the attacks getting lost amid the swirl of external events. At the same time, Kerry has struggled to get his message out and delayed efforts to begin defining himself in positive terms.

"This is going to be one of those elections in which external events are the third player in the campaign," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "If [Kerry] was going to be working on defining himself in the context of all this news, he would have had to come into the discussion of Iraq - where he did not want to be, because in a foreign policy crisis, challengers should stay out of the news."

Kerry has indicated that he plans to ramp up his efforts to define himself - and will launch a new biographical ad campaign in coming weeks. While admitting that Kerry remains unknown to many voters, Kerry strategists argue that there remains ample opportunity to introduce him, since many voters are not yet tuned into the race, and probably won't be for a while. "There's a pattern to when people check in to these things," says one Kerry adviser. "There's no question that he is not as well known as he will be by the time we get to Election Day."

The Kerry campaign also argues that neither candidate holds a clear advantage. Although the Massachusetts senator's unfavorability ratings have gone up in the past month, most of the shift, they say, has been among Republican voters.

Different advertising approaches

So far, Kerry's ads have focused on policy rather than character. This is in contrast to Bush's first campaign ads, which were almost entirely atmospheric, portraying the president as a strong leader, but mentioning almost no specifics.

Kerry, too, has significantly scaled back his advertising this week. He's continuing to run a spot attacking Bush on outsourcing, but it's unclear how much sting it will continue to have, in light of more optimistic news on jobs and the economy.

However much the messages from the two camps may have sunk in, the news out of Iraq is certainly causing some problems for Bush. The number of Americans who regard the war as a mistake has tripled over the past year, while more than half believe the administration doesn't have a clear plan for success. Perhaps most important, 2 in 3 see the number of casualties as unacceptable.

Indeed, while much of the focus has been over the battle to define Kerry, "Bush has as much of a definitional problem right now as Kerry does," says Ms. Jamieson. Although typically the public has a fixed image of an incumbent, Bush could wind up in that rare category of presidents who find themselves redefined by events, as Lyndon Johnson was by the Vietnam War. As Bush becomes more and more identified with Iraq, his political future may be almost solely determined by the success of that effort.

Iraq focus a positive for Bush

Still, so far, the focus on Iraq seems to be a net positive for Bush rather than a net negative. With more Americans now seeing Iraq and terrorism as the nation's top problem - and fewer listing the economy as a concern - the shift in focus has clearly worked to Bush's favor.

And Kerry still faces the far greater challenge in the definition war. While Kerry is limited in how sharply he can attack the president on Iraq, without seeming to undercut support for the troops, Bush has been running an ad attacking Kerry for voting against the $87 billion for the troops.

In general "it's easier to move opinions on Kerry right now than it is to move opinions on President Bush," says Bill Benoit, a communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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