Candidates vie to be 'safe' choice

In a scramble for late-breaking votes, Bush and Kerry each enumerate risks of putting the other at the nation's helm.

Driving home their closing arguments in the final days of the presidential campaign, both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have boiled down their messages to the same basic point: Electing their opponent represents a risk the nation cannot afford to take.

From the back-and-forth over missing explosives in Iraq to dueling ads featuring a pack of wolves and an ostrich with its head in the sand, these final days are reinforcing how much this election is playing out against a unique backdrop of an uncertain world - and making it increasingly likely that the candidate with whom Americans feel safer will ultimately win.

Both men are making a positive case for themselves, with each campaign offering final ads that feature the candidates addressing viewers directly. But the negative case against their opponent may ultimately prove more important, with Senator Kerry focusing on Mr. Bush's competence, and Bush targeting his opponent's character.

Kerry has spent recent days pounding Mr. Bush over reports that the administration failed to secure nearly 380 tons of explosives in Iraq, using the news to bolster his case that the president rushed to war and has mismanaged the aftermath.

Bush responded to the charges for the first time Wednesday, attempting to turn the issue back on his opponent. He accused Kerry of making "wild charges" without knowing all the facts - something he said made Kerry unfit to be commander in chief. He also argued that Kerry's attack fit a pattern of "saying almost anything to get elected."

'Ceilings' of support

The exchange reflects a recent pattern in which Kerry has been jumping on a series of negative news pegs - from the flu vaccine shortage to new jobless numbers to Iraq - to attack the president's record, while Bush has tried to stay above the daily fray in pressing his core theme of the need for strength and certainty in fighting the war on terror.

Bush aides argue that Kerry's strategy has diluted his message and is in fact providing voters with further evidence of the Massachusetts senator's tendency to politicize everything.

"The public looks at how candidates react to events," says Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. "John Kerry views our men and women in the military as a political pawn for him to make short-term gains."

But Kerry officials say Bush's refusal to directly address news events like the missing explosives reinforces an image of a president who is out of touch. And, they add, Bush's endgame tactic of "trying to raise a sense of risk," repeatedly stressing the need to stay on the offensive in the war on terror, may actually be backfiring. According to a poll this week by Stan Greenberg, a Kerry adviser, the number of voters saying Bush was "too ready to go to war" has risen by five points. "It may well be that the president's campaign is creating a backlash against his own message," says Mr. Greenberg.

Neither candidate is showing clear signs of momentum, with both sides lately arguing their opponent has hit a "ceiling" of support, as polls continue to show the race to be a dead heat. Both are combining appeals to core supporters with efforts to reach the remaining fraction of undecided voters - who could ultimately tip the balance either way.

Bush has been making explicit appeals to "discerning Democrats" to come join him, campaigning in Ohio with Democrats such as Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia and Youngstown mayor George McKelvey, and peppering his speeches with references to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and even Lyndon Johnson. He campaigned earlier in the week with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and will appear later this week with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bush advisers are highlighting the fact that the president is campaigning in more blue states than red, and trolling for votes in Democratic-leaning areas of the red states - such as Youngstown.

Kerry is scheduled to make appearances Thursday in Wisconsin and Ohio with Bruce Springsteen. He campaigned earlier this week with former President Bill Clinton, who Kerry advisers believe will not only help rally the Democratic base, but will also remind suburban swing voters of the strong economy of the 1990s.

The mugwump vote

Historically, undecided voters have tended to break against the incumbent, and Democrats believe this year will prove no different. A new Pew poll showed that Kerry has made more gains among swing voters this past month than Bush, and surveys show undecided voters are unhappy with the direction of the country. They also tend to put a higher priority on domestic issues such as the economy than on security - which could work to Kerry's advantage.

Incumbents rarely receive a higher vote share than they get in the polls running up to the election, says Greenberg. "I think [Bush] has gotten the votes he's going to get."

But Republicans believe Bush still has a good chance at winning over undecided voters this year, noting that polls show these voters tend to be moderate or conservative rather than liberal, and that by 2 to 1 they believe Bush will be reelected.

"Who [these undecided voters] are is different from who they've been in the past," says Mr. Mehlman.

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