As President Bush prepares to head into next week's convention, he is in a stronger position than his advisers once anticipated - but facing steeper challenges than almost any incumbent who has gone on to win reelection.
After a Democratic convention that generated an unexpectedly small bounce for Sen. John Kerry - followed by three weeks of heated debate over Senator Kerry's Vietnam service - Mr. Bush is entering his convention with the unexpected luxury of having no gap to close in the polls. A new Los Angeles Times poll this week showed Bush with a three-point lead over Kerry, a reversal from last month, when Kerry led by two points.
Yet analysts say Bush's ability to gain much more momentum out of the convention may be limited: As a well-known, well-defined incumbent - about whom most voters have already made up their minds - Bush is likely to have a tougher time attracting significant new levels of support than Kerry did.
Certainly, Bush is in much better shape than was his father - who headed into his 1992 convention lagging 21 points behind Bill Clinton. But, as the Kerry campaign points out, every incumbent who has won a second term has held a double-digit lead at this point in the race. "This president is right at the margin - he has no room to spare," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
In fact, Bush is likely to need a lead of at least three points going into the election - because most undecided voters are likely to break against him in the end, says Charlie Cook, an independent political analyst. Polls show undecided voters are deeply pessimistic about the direction of the country, and give Bush far lower approval ratings than average voters. As a result, Kerry has a better chance at winning them over than Bush - since he simply represents a change from the past four years.
"John Kerry is like the kid in spring semester of his senior year in college, where all he needs to do is get a C to pass," says Mr. Cook. "He just needs [to be] acceptable. President Bush has to change minds. And that's a much taller order."
One of the easiest ways for Bush to begin to do that is by continuing to raise doubts about Kerry - something the past few weeks of controversy over Kerry's medals and Purple Hearts seem to have accomplished.
The issue does hold the potential for a backlash against Bush, particularly with this week's focus on ties between the anti-Kerry group "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" and the Bush campaign - and the resignation of a Bush campaign lawyer who was working for the group. Indeed, by the middle of the week it was the Kerry campaign keeping the debate alive, sending Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland to Bush's ranch with a letter asking the president to denounce the attacks on Kerry, as Republicans tried to turn the page toward next week's convention.
Still, polls show that the debate may have raised new questions about Kerry's character in voters' minds.
Perhaps more important, it dominated the campaign for three full weeks, preventing Kerry from effectively hammering Bush on a variety of other issues, from weak jobs reports to high oil prices.
"[Bush] is in a better position today than he was three weeks ago," says Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "I'd much rather have him answering questions on 527s - which most voters don't know what they are - than on what the price of home heating oil will be this winter."
But next week the focus will shift from Kerry to Bush. And as in any race involving an incumbent, the president will have to defend his record and make the case to voters that he deserves a second term.
Republicans argue it will offer Bush an opportunity to generate new momentum, casting the debate forward and outlining detailed policy proposals for the next four years - something they say Kerry failed to do at his convention, by focusing so much on his biography.
"The president has a chance to start a new phase of the campaign at the convention," says Charlie Black, an adviser to the Bush campaign. "He's going to kick off a phase of the campaign with a positive message and specific plans for the future."
Analysts agree it's imperative that Bush supply some new proposals, if only to show he's not "stuck in a rut of tax cuts and Iraq," as Professor Wayne puts it. "Presenting something new will give a sense of what his priorities are going to be. It's his way of saying, 'We're going to move on beyond Iraq. It's not a failure, but we're going to move on beyond it. There are other things we're going to do next.'"
But Democrats argue that regardless of what new ideas Bush outlines for the future, he's ultimately still running on his record of the past four years - which they argue is one of failed policies.
"From a political perspective, this notion of a new agenda will not get them out from under the problem that they face," said Bill Knapp, a Kerry adviser, on a conference call with reporters. "[Bush] simply cannot run on what he's done."