Bush's turn: Start of a month-long attack

President defends his own accomplishments and portrays Democratic rival as a do-nothing 'flip-flopper.'

Lest there be any doubt, it is now clear that the 2004 presidential race will be relentlessly fought right through Election Day.

President Bush took to the campaign trail within hours of the closing gavel of last week's Democratic National Convention, a four-day infomercial that even Republicans agree was effective in rallying the Democratic faithful and fleshing out the image of the man who would replace him. Bush has no time to lose in "setting the record straight," both about his own time as president and Democratic nominee John Kerry's 19-plus years in the Senate, Republicans say.

During key moments of the Boston convention, the Massachusetts senator chose to emphasize his service in Vietnam, lining the stage with crewmates and featuring testimonials by veterans, including four-star generals. Kerry's Senate record seemed an after-thought.

So over the next three months, the Bush campaign will engage in a multi-pronged strategy - promoting Bush's own record as president, laying out an argument for four more years, and attacking Kerry on every conceivable front, particularly the thousands of votes he has taken over the years, which Republicans say prove Kerry is a "flip-flopper."

"Senator Kerry said, 'Judge me on my record.' I think we ought to take him on his word," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is based in Alexandria, Va. "This idea that he can somehow remake himself in a matter of a few months from an exceedingly liberal antimilitary candidate into a centrist commander in chief I think is reminiscent of a political chameleon."

Just as most Democratic speakers in Boston insisted the campaign would be positive - then proceeded to take subtle, and occasionally not so subtle, jabs at Bush and the GOP - the Republicans, too, say they will emphasize what four more years of a Bush presidency will look like.

But they also know they have to quash the idea that Kerry is just as qualified to be commander in chief as the current man in the Oval Office, whose claim to the title of "war president" was forged in the crucible of 9/11 and the wars it spawned - in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the perpetual effort to keep the homeland secure. But don't accuse either side of "going negative." The preferred term is "comparative" campaigning, designed to "contrast" one man with the other. "We need to offer a contrast with Senator Kerry," Bush adviser Karl Rove told The New York Times.

Even though voters say they don't like "negative campaigning," the fact is that it works. Personal or egregiously unfair attacks indeed may well backfire, but when voters perceive that a critique is legitimate, it can sway opinion. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who built a reputation during the primary for being optimistic and positive, is now particularly well-positioned to go after Bush, subtly and with a smile.

For Bush, the incumbent, the challenge is to present the right balance of positive spin on his record so far, a vision for the future, and comparison with Kerry. Bush and his team "have to be bold," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University, noting that the early read on Kerry's postconvention bounce is that now he does have a small edge over Bush. "They cannot say, 'We'll attack Kerry, we'll play it safe.' They need to outline some bold initiatives ... like healthcare, education, and Social Security."

Over the weekend, Bush traveled to key battleground states and unveiled a new stump speech billed as his most detailed campaign agenda yet.

But the most often-reported sound bite out of Bush's speech went after Kerry. "My opponent has good intentions, but intentions do not always translate to results," said Bush, echoing a slogan from his 2000 campaign, when he called himself a "reformer with results." "After 19 years in the United States Senate, my opponent has had thousands of votes, but very few signature achievements."

In traveling over the weekend to four battleground states in the industrial Midwest, where job losses have taken their toll, Bush also returned to "compassionate conservative" themes that worked for him four years ago - aimed particularly at people with families. The president stumped for legislation that would allow workers more opportunity to take accrued time off.

"We'll make sure American families keep more of something they never have enough of, and that's time - time to play with the kids, time to go to Little League games, time to care for elderly parents, or time to go to class themselves," he said.

Polls show that Bush trails Kerry on all domestic issues, including the economy, education, and the environment, in some instances by huge margins. But just as Kerry is not cutting Bush any slack on his strengths - namely, overall leadership and the war on terror - the president is not conceding the domestic landscape. In particular, if Bush allows Kerry's central charge to stand unanswered - that the president has hurt middle-class Americans by giving tax cuts to the rich and standing by while jobs go overseas - he could lose ground on the economy.

Sara B. Miller contributed.

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