Both big parties solidify swiftly

With both presidential tickets complete and the conventions nearing, motivation is high.

It's just two weeks until the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston - but both the big parties that vie for control of America may already be unified and motivated to an unprecedented degree.

Sen. John Kerry's selection of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate might have been the last piece of this particular political puzzle. It fired up some Democrats who'd been lukewarm about Kerry's candidacy, driving party cohesiveness poll numbers up toward the already higher GOP ratings.

With the partisan bases perhaps solidified, swing voters now apparently represent a smaller segment of the electorate than they did at the same time four years ago. The bottom line: Through November, game-ready Democrats and Republicans could be scrapping for small gains with more intensity than ever.

Whose campaign approach will lure the independents? "That's the $64,000 question," says Dennis Goldford, director of the Program in Law, Politics, and Society at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

The focus and passion the parties are bringing to this year's election can be seen in the nature of current campaigning.

In past cycles July is often a time for candidate introduction, via television or print ads that stress biography or record in office. Those are running this year, too - particularly Democratic ones. Kerry strategists think the Vietnam-vet candidate has a compelling life story that should win him fence-sitter votes.

But to an unusual degree Democrats and Republicans have already joined in partisan combat on core issues.

Thus last week the GOP released an ad criticizing Senator Kerry for voting against a bill that makes it a separate offense to injure the fetus of a pregnant woman in the course of committing a federal crime.

Democrats hit the Bush administration for manipulating intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq. On Saturday, President Bush used his weekly radio address to push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Neither side is ceding an inch to the other in the struggle to convince voters that they see the world through a framework of values that most Americans share.

"If voters don't think a candidate shares their values, they won't listen to them about other issues," says Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

To a certain extent it's early Democratic and Republican unity that has made this summer's October-intense politics possible.

Republicans remain enthusiastic about President Bush. That's often - but not always - the case with incumbent chief executives.

In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 82 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans said that George W. Bush has the same priorities that they do.

In the same survey, 84 percent of Republicans said they trusted Bush to deal wisely with international problems. Only 16 percent of Democrats agreed.

On the Democratic side, an AP/Ipsos poll taken last week found that with his pick of John Edwards to join his ticket, Kerry has increased the percentage of his supporters who count themselves as "strong" to 64 percent, from 55 percent in June.

'Little base left to consolidate'

A range of polls now show Sen. Kerry attracting 82 to 80 percent of the Democratic vote, said party strategist Mark Mellman in a recent campaign memo.

"There is little base left for John Kerry to consolidate. He has already accomplished that goal," Mr. Mellman wrote.

"Consolidate the base" has long been rule one of national-level politics. It's not necessarily a permanent condition - core voters need to be continually cultivated leading up to an election. But successful candidates often make it a priority before trying to woo undecideds.

Consider what has happened to candidates forced to run with fractured parties. In 1972, George McGovern never rallied labor and other traditional Democratic constituencies to join his anti-Vietnam War core vote, and lost in a landslide. And in 1992 a fiery challenge on the right from commentator Pat Buchanan hobbled George H. W. Bush's ultimately unsuccessful reelection drive.

Then there are those candidates who may have lost when third party rivals siphoned off voters who might otherwise have gone for them.

See Al Gore, in 2000, who was attacked by Ralph Nader as well as George Bush, and George H. W. Bush, who was bedeviled by Ross Perot.

But with bases already consolidated, both Democratic and Republican tickets may have already entered a second stage of the campaign: the struggle for swing votes.

This year there are already substantially fewer swing voters than at the corresponding stage of the last three presidential campaigns, according to one poll.

Today's swing voters: moderates

A recent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey found that only 21 percent of voters described themselves as undecided, or capable of still changing their minds.

At the same stage in 2000, fully 33 percent of voters were not yet committed. In 1996, the corresponding figure was 27 percent; according to Pew. In 1992 it was 31 percent.

"Swing voters come from almost all demographic categories," noted a Pew poll report. "But they are distinguished from committed voters by their political moderation and by the fact that they have favorable opinions of both Bush and Kerry."

The ideologically oriented voters are already solidly behind their men, notes Pew. Only 6 percent of self-described conservative Republicans are swing voters. Some 17 percent of liberal Democrats say they are open to persuasion - a larger figure but one still down from 2000.

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