In this race, close echoes of last one

Four years ago, Bush ran as a centrist who could unite the nation. Now a Democrat makes that case.

Building on momentum from the Democratic convention, Sen. John Kerry is taking the fight to President Bush's geographical and issues terrain - and taking some pages out of Mr. Bush's 2000 playbook.

With his base energized and polls showing Mr. Kerry moving ahead of Bush, after picking up a small bounce from the convention, the Massachusetts senator is trying to consolidate his lead by reaching out to swing voters.

Crossing the country on a two-week "Believe in America" tour through key battleground states, he's bypassing most major cities for smaller towns, where Bush tends to have more support. He's stressing Republican themes like values, trying to shift the definition away from things like abortion and gay marriage toward economic justice and personal conduct.

Kerry is even emulating aspects of Bush's 2000 race against Vice President Al Gore, adopting variations of Bush's own slogans. His promise to restore "trust and credibility" to the White House echoes Bush's promise to restore "honor and dignity" in the wake of the Lewinsky scandals, and his refrain of "help is on the way" was formerly used by Vice President Dick Cheney. Sen. John Edwards's variation, "hope is on the way," is a close echo.

Angling for a fine line of leadership

The tactic reflects the circumstances surrounding the race: With Democrats highly motivated to defeat Bush, Kerry is able to focus on reaching undecided voters in the center - presenting himself, as Bush once did, as a candidate who can unite a divided nation. Like Bush in 2000, Kerry is positioning himself against a polarizing predecessor who, he argues, has betrayed the trust of the American people - in this case over the reasons for going to war.

"We've been hearing a lot of talk in this campaign about values, promises being broken," Kerry told a large crowd that had waited hours in the rain to see the Democratic ticket in Zanesville, Ohio. "The strength of America is greatest when its leaders tell the truth to the American people and trust them to make decisions."

Certainly, there are key differences between the current campaign and the 2000 race, some of which work to Kerry's advantage, but some of which make his task considerably harder.

Unlike in 2000, when Bush had to convince voters to change the party in power after eight years of peace and prosperity, Kerry is running at a time when a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and want change.

Yet he's also facing a far less stable environment, including widespread concerns about security, which could make voters wary of putting in new leadership, particularly if Kerry cannot convince them he would do a better job of keeping the country safe.

Kerry is attempting to straddle these conflicting sentiments by positioning himself as a responsible, reassuring leader who would bring change but not dramatic change - essentially promising to restore a sense of normalcy after four years of war and economic uncertainty, and get America back on track.

"[Voters] want change, but they're not in a revolutionary mood," says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "I think Kerry has the personality and style to get that nuance right."

To that end, Kerry has conspicuously aligned himself with Clinton's economic policies, presenting a Kerry administration as a continuation of Clinton in that respect. On the stump, he cites former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as an adviser, promising to reduce the deficit and cut taxes for the middle class. Likewise, on foreign policy, he places himself within a tradition of a long bipartisan line of administrations, arguing he would restore alliances and make America "respected" abroad.

Ballots and a search for better days

Significantly, on the kickoff rally for his tour in Boston, he told the audience he plans to "bring back the country we know we are." But by saying that he plans to bring America back to its former greatness, Kerry also faces a risk that his campaign comes across as looking backwards rather than forward. To be sure, he repeatedly emphasizes that his candidacy is about the future.

But Bush is casting himself as the candidate who understands how to lead the country in a new era. The president is aggressively making the case that America has "turned the corner," as his new slogan puts it, and is moving forward.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge for Kerry is that he is facing an incumbent who is strongly defending his record. In 2000, Bush's implicit attacks on Bill Clinton often went unanswered, as Al Gore tried to distance himself from the Clinton scandals.

Chasing, hunting, fishing

After lying low during the Democratic convention, Bush is making a tour of his own, notably hitting the same states and even some of the same towns as Kerry, in some cases just hours before the Massachusetts senator arrives, and emphasizing values.

Bush dubbed his trip the "Heart and Soul of America Tour," a deliberate reference to Kerry's recent remark at a fundraiser that celebrities there - who made crude jokes about the president - were "the heart and soul of America."

"There seems to be a difference over the heart and soul of America," he told an audience in Canton, Ohio. "My opponents think you define the heart and soul of America in Hollywood."

Bush also stopped at a sporting-goods store outside Wheeling, W.Va., shortly before Kerry arrived in town to hold a rally, and talked about his love of hunting - an issue that many analysts believe hurt Mr. Gore in the state in 2000. But Kerry is fighting back on that front, repeatedly telling crowds he is a hunter and fisherman. Standing before a crowd of many union members in Wheeling, he said: "I've been a hunter since I was about 12 years old."

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