Why Kerry can't seem to get a bounce

Despite Bush's woes, Kerry's ratings stagnate as Iraq eclipses all else.

It's easy, in the superheated environment of a campaign, to panic at every real or imagined sign that Something's Not Quite Right. This week's Exhibit A: the latest Gallup Poll, which showed that President Bush's job approval rating and public support for the Iraq war had both sunk to new lows - but also showed Bush gaining against his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.

Granted, the shift in the Bush-Kerry matchup was statistically insignificant. The new poll had Bush up by 1 point (48 percent to 47 percent), compared with a week ago, when Kerry led by 1 point. But some Kerry backers wondered how the Massachusetts senator could actually lose ground against Bush in such a disastrous week for the president, as his administration grapples with the Iraqi prison abuse scandal.

Kerry's message - this week, on healthcare - has been drowned out by all the Iraq headlines. (So, too, has anything Bush has tried to do.) So the senator's image, for now, is caught in a sort of stasis, with nearly half of likely voters agreeing that he's a "flip-flopper," not the kind of resolute leader that some voters see in the current president. But there's plenty of evidence that voters still don't know Kerry; many still don't even know that he was in the military, let alone saw combat and won medals. And for that small slice of voters who'll probably not decide whom to back until close to Election Day - and they could well determine the outcome - both campaigns still have time to forge Kerry's image.

For now, though, the senator has to be careful how he plays the Iraq prison scandal, even if, on its face, he would appear to benefit from it, analysts say. "He doesn't want to appear critical of the soldiers over there; he wants to be perceived as loyal to the US in the broader sense," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "Many of his positions on Iraq are fairly similar to Bush's, simply because there's not much room to maneuver. Really, where his campaign can be most effective is on other issues."

Over time, he adds, Kerry has to craft a positive image of himself as an alternative to Bush, more than just "I'm not him."

Kerry has plenty of time to do that, even if some fellow Democrats are getting antsy over his trademark "start slow" campaign style. And as the Bush campaign works hard to portray Kerry as shamelessly politicizing the tragedy of the Iraqi prison abuses - as Bush-Cheney '04 chair Marc Racicot did Wednesday on a conference call with reporters - there are other Republicans who see Kerry in good position.

"These are the best of times for John Kerry," says a senior Republican Senate aide. "Bush's greatest strength is being questioned. Really, Bush will win or lose this election on the basis of national security, period. If that is going poorly for him and if the American people question his leadership in that area, that's the best thing that could happen for John Kerry. All the negative ads [against Kerry] I think may have had some impact, but that's transitory."

The GOP party line on Wednesday, though, was that Kerry had gone over the line the day before at a fundraising luncheon in Louisville. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the presumptive Democratic nominee blamed the abusive behavior toward Iraqi detainees on "an attitude that comes out of how we went there in the first place, an attitude that comes out of America's overall arrogance as policy."

Mr. Racicot accused Kerry of blaming "all of America for the disgusting actions of a few." Then he continued: "It's striking to see the ease with which John Kerry thrust an important moment for our country into the campaign's daily spin cycle."

Whether the Bush campaign's charge will gain traction with the public remains to be seen. But in the meantime, another dimension of the Kerry campaign began to take off: heightened buzz over whom Kerry will name as his running mate, amid word that he will make his choice next month.

The name now circulating with the most excitement is Gen. Wesley Clark, the retired former NATO commander who ran against Kerry for the Democratic nomination. General Clark, along with some of Kerry's other opponents, has been traveling the country and appearing as a surrogate spokesman. Now, say some analysts, with the prison abuse scandal, Clark is the obvious choice to put on the ticket. "These [Iraqi detainee] pictures have placed Wesley Clark on the very short list," says Ken Smukler, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia. "Kerry, even as a war hero, was never going to be able to make the case he was a stronger war president than Bush, until the pictures came out. Now, the easiest way for him to become credible as war president is to pick a war veep."

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