Key tests loom for Bush and Kerry

President faces June 30 Iraq transition and concern about jobs. His rival needs to find a running mate - and to define himself.

After a week in eclipse as the nation mourned President Reagan, Campaign '04 has returned in full force. TV ads are back up, money is being raised, and the candidates and their surrogates are back on the stump.

With 4-1/2 months to go until election day, analysts say President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, face both starkly different and similar tasks: President Bush needs to quell public doubts over his handling of Iraq and the economy, and present a clear vision for a second term. Senator Kerry, faring better in polls against an incumbent elected president than any challenger in decades, remains ill-defined to about a third of the public - and, in the eyes of some Democrats, also has yet to present a clearly articulated plan for the nation's future.

But in the end, it is Mr. Bush who faces the more difficult task. "Kerry is simply the default option," says political analyst Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia. "If this were an open-seat race, I'd call it for Bush right now.... Kerry lacks appeal on a personal level. But this isn't about him. If people reject Bush and don't want him to serve again, Kerry is elected. Period. Bush is right on the edge."

The next month will tell the tale, he and other analysts say. During this period, Mr. Kerry will name his running mate, a moment of crystallization for the Democratic ticket and the anointing of another important surrogate campaigner for Kerry. In addition, the June 30 deadline for the US turnover of Iraq to local control will pass.

"Either things will start to improve [in Iraq] or they won't," says Professor Sabato. "There has to be fairly steady improvement that is noticeable by Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign. No one's going to believe a lull in fighting in October."

For Kerry, though, nothing is guaranteed. As the incumbent, Bush is well-known by the public and has no trouble making the evening news. Kerry, who had begun to earn headlines as he laid out specific plans for healthcare and national security, has had to start over after the Reagan hiatus. This week, he travels to New Jersey, Michigan, and Ohio to talk jobs and strengthening the middle class.

Ohio, one of the central battleground states of the election, is probably the most challenging of those three states for Kerry. "The economic problems give Kerry an opportunity, but we've had economic troubles in Ohio for a long time, so people are a bit cynical," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Kerry also faces the prospect of another presidential eclipse: the release of Bill Clinton's memoirs June 22. Word from the 42nd president's corner is that he plans to use his book tour to plug Kerry's candidacy, but just as the current President Bush risked negative comparisons with Reagan during a week of eulogies, so, too, does Kerry risk looking pale in comparison with the politically skillful Mr. Clinton. He also risks the downside of renewed reminders of the less savory side of Clinton's tenure.

Even Monday, the Clinton years made their way into the political consciousness, as the current president and first lady unveiled the official Clinton portraits in the East Room of the White House.

In the end, it is likely that any impact of both the Clinton and Reagan retrospectives on the current campaign will have faded by Nov. 2. For Kerry, though, there's the possibility that the longer arc of the Clinton buzz will bring bigger benefits, as Clinton tours the country making subtle attacks on Bush.

Democrats are also hard at work putting down the idea that Kerry is behind schedule in shaping his image and message. "It is a very difficult thing to convince the American people that you could be president," says Democratic consultant Jenny Backus, who is not working for Kerry. "The primaries only appeal to a small segment of the electorate. To go into the general, you have a lot of work to do."

Kerry's search for a running mate has provided regular fodder for press coverage, and fueled the quadrennial parlor game of "Who Should Be Vice President?" Talk that the Massachusetts Democrat might ask Republican Sen. John McCain to join the ticket flared again, as news came out last weekend that the two had met. Mr. McCain's camp continues to state that the only office he is running for this fall is senator from Arizona.

Some Democrats sigh with exasperation that the story is back - even though, on the face of it, a Kerry-McCain ticket would be a slam dunk for Kerry. A CBS poll showed Kerry-McCain beating Bush-Cheney by 14 points. But given that McCain is a conservative Republican who opposes abortion rights, and a Senate voting record that would contrast sharply with Kerry's, the ticket would face problems with some Democrats.

Many analysts believe the McCain talk has been dialed up by a press corps that loves the story, and that its encouragement by Kerry people has been aimed at putting out an image of Kerry as bipartisan.

The more credible veep talk centers on Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina who impressed the political world during the primaries with his strong, upbeat campaign style and his ability, as a Southerner, to connect with voters anywhere in the country. A recent AP poll shows 43 percent of Democrats favoring Mr. Edwards as running mate.

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