Incumbent factor: the other elephant in the room

Bush's role as sitting president gives him spotlight, and hot seat.

July, it could be said, was John Kerry's month. Between anticipation over the veepstakes, interest in the new ticket, and coverage of the Democratic convention, the Massachusetts senator easily garnered positive headlines and dominated news cycles.

But August has been a different story. Kerry's "Believe in America" tour competed with distractions, such as a new terror alert, and presidential visits to the same towns on the same days. The Kerry campaign hoped to spend the past two weeks focusing on the economy, but the candidate wound up largely reacting to President Bush's thrusts on national security - from his challenge to Kerry to say whether he would vote the same way now on authorizing the Iraq war, to his initiative to bring back US troops from Europe and Asia.

Starting next week, Kerry's chances of commanding the spotlight will get even more remote, as attention shifts to New York and the launch of the Republican convention.

In some ways, this is part of the natural cycle of campaigns, with conventions highlighting first one candidate and then the other.

The effect has been somewhat exacerbated this year, because of the unusual amount of time between the two conventions, allowing each man to effectively dominate an entire month.

But Kerry is also bumping into the challenges of running against an incumbent - who can make news or insert himself into a story any time he chooses. In the aftermath of hurricane Charley, for example, Bush toured the wreckage in Florida, while Kerry sat on the sidelines.

For Bush, this headline-grabbing advantage will extend beyond the convention - while Kerry's next real chance to make a splash may be the debates.

"Any president has the ability to totally dictate the agenda of the race," says Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign against President Clinton. "[Bush] has dominated the issues that are being discussed, and caused Kerry and Edwards to react to headlines."

Democrats concede that, between news-dominating events like the hurricane and the Olympics, and the build up to the GOP convention, the past few weeks have been more challenging for Kerry.

Still, they argue that Bush's incumbency will ultimately prove more of a disadvantage than an advantage. While the president may have an easier time getting coverage, he also can't distance himself from negative events. Moreover, any race involving a sitting president tends to revolve around that president's record - which Democrats say is riddled with problems for Bush, on everything from the economy to Iraq.

"Ultimately, when you're the incumbent ... the race is about you," says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist. "There are great advantages to incumbency, and we've seen some of them in the past few days. But there are also great disadvantages to incumbency when you have major failures on your hands."

What Bush can do

Certainly, Bush's incumbency hasn't produced a clear boost in the polls so far: His job-approval ratings have been hovering at or just below 50 percent, the danger zone for a sitting president. History suggests that presidents often have a harder time winning over undecided voters - who typically break in favor of the challenger. And most polls currently show Kerry with a slim lead overall.

But that could change as Bush continues to dominate the spotlight over the next few weeks, drawing attention to his successes and his vision for the next four years.

Likewise, Bush can put himself ahead by raising more doubts about Kerry.

Already, Kerry has been struggling to beat back an onslaught of attacks on his Vietnam service record by a third-party group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Initially, the campaign relied on surrogates to meet the attacks, hoping not to elevate the group's profile with a direct response.

That may have been a tactical mistake: As the group's charges have continued to receive attention, the Kerry campaign has had to become more aggressive in refuting them. Thursday, Kerry himself addressed the matter in a speech to firefighters, saying: "This group isn't interested in the truth - and they're not telling the truth," and calling it "a front for the Bush campaign."

The Kerry campaign is also releasing a new ad refuting the group's charges - despite the fact that they had hoped to stay "dark" throughout August, to conserve general-election funds and start September on an even financial footing with Bush.

Conventions, coverage, and crowds

Significantly, the Kerry campaign announced this week that it would break with tradition and make at least one campaign stop during the Republican convention - a sign of how tight the race is, and how little the candidate can afford to miss any opportunity for coverage, no matter how slight.

While Kerry will almost certainly be overshadowed by the events in New York, Mr. Axelrod argues he could draw an effective contrast with the Republicans' "theatrical performance on Broadway" by going out into "the real America, talking about the things people are talking about around the kitchen table."

One factor that has already helped Kerry along these lines, and could continue to boost him in coming weeks, is the difference in coverage between various types of media outlets. Although national coverage has tended to focus on the back and forth between Kerry and Bush over troop levels and Iraq, local coverage typically gives more weight to the candidate's message of the day, transmitting snippets of his stump speech - and details of his plan on the economy or healthcare - to undecided voters in whatever battleground state he's touring.

And while Bush generates equally glowing local press coverage, incumbency has created at least one challenge on this front: With security a bigger concern for the president, Bush's rallies have been ticketed so that participants can be screened. Kerry's rallies, by contrast, are open to the public and have therefore been bigger - a factor that has been repeatedly noted in press accounts.

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