Bush goes on offense

His main current campaign thrust is to cut Kerry's credibility on fighting terror.

When August began, George W. Bush and his team promised an easy-on-the-ears message of presidential successes, followed by an agenda for a second term. The vision thing is still to come, when Mr. Bush addresses the Republican convention Sept. 2 in New York.

For now, though, with the president fighting to gain an edge against Democratic nominee John Kerry, the Bush message remains as much anti-Kerry as pro-Bush. Attack of the week: Senator Kerry's credibility on intelligence reform.

By going after Kerry on a somewhat inside-the-beltway issue - with an ad that juxtaposes his promise to "immediately reform the intelligence system" with his 76 percent absence rate at public Senate intelligence committee meetings - the Bush campaign is showing that it won't leave any potential Kerry weakness unexploited.

But in such a tight race, Bush has no choice, analysts say. "He's in the unenviable position of having to wage a three-front battle," says independent pollster John Zogby.

No. 1, he says, Bush has to get his numbers up into the high 40s by the end of his convention - that is, his job approval rating, support for his reelection, and a sense that the nation is headed on the right track. (The latest Gallup Poll put Bush's job approval at 51 percent - the first time Gallup has shown him above 50 since April, but other major polls still have him below 50.)

Second, Bush has to push Kerry's numbers down.

And third, Mr. Zogby says, Bush probably has to dissuade undecideds from voting at all. Zogby aggregated the data on undecided voters from several of his recent nationwide polls, to produce a large enough sample size, and found results that show a discouraging picture for the president: On Bush's job performance, undecideds were 39 percent positive and 60 percent negative. Only 16 percent of undecideds said Bush deserved to be reelected.

Kerry faces similar challenges - an electorate that appears stuck in place, and too close to call. Thus the necessity to try multiple approaches, positive and negative, to sway votes. As Bush pounds on Kerry's record on intelligence - a message meant to show that Kerry is unsuited to fight the war on terror - Kerry is slamming Bush's economic record. And because Kerry has already had his convention, he has one fewer opportunity than Bush, as of now, to claim the spotlight.

Charles Black, an informal adviser to the Bush campaign, says Bush's "intel" ad is central to the argument against Kerry, because it plays on his credibility and therefore his leadership on terror.

"He's saying he could run a better war on terror than Bush, but his Senate career shows he has either a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of intelligence or at least doesn't believe it's important," Mr. Black says.

The Kerry campaign blisters back with a nine-page memo, saying the Bush ad relies on "selective math and sketchy methods," by not including the intelligence meetings that were closed to the public and only counting those open meetings in which Kerry made statements. The Kerry team then fires criticism at the White House, saying "the Bush administration marginalized fighting terrorism."

In the end, this dustup over one slice of Kerry's Senate record may present a foretaste of things to come. With nearly 20 years in the Senate and thousands of votes on his record, Kerry can expect repeated charges from the Bush team that will force the Democrat's side to go through the inevitably complicated explanations that go with congressional votes.

Whether the public is following along, particularly with the Olympics and Florida hurricane aftermath filling TV screens, is another matter.

The Kerry team has also launched an an all-purpose response along the lines of "Bush is attacking us because he's in trouble," and it points to opinion polls that show the public is tired of attacks and wants to hear a positive agenda.

Indeed, in his $28 million ad budget for this month, Bush has also put out ads focusing on the spread of democracy in the world, America and 9/11, and his plan for an "ownership" society. But the open secret in politics is that attacks can work, and that no serious campaign leaves any openings unexploited. The only trick is to attack without appearing defensive.

"Offense is a lot more fun than defense," says political scientist Jack Pitney of Claremont-McKenna College in California. "The incumbent administration has many inherent advantages and a lot of ammunition in the armory, but the big disadvantage is that it has to play defense - that is, any bad thing that happens is a potential liability. And a lot of bad things have happened."

Polls consistently show that Kerry is beating Bush on all policy issues except terrorism, while Bush usually beats Kerry on character traits, such as leadership. When President Reagan faced former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, the same divide appeared - with Democrats beating the Republicans on issues but Mr. Reagan beating Mr. Mondale on personal qualities.

Does this bode well for Bush? Not necessarily, analysts say. Reagan also had a high job approval rating, and today, Bush does not.

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