Boiled down, Kerry’s main argument really is, I’m not the fellow who screwed up and got us into this jam, and I have the credibility he lacks to try to enlist the international community in finding a solution to this mess. This is not a bad case — since Kerry has decided not to call for a pullout — but he has not been able to convey that he is indeed the better man to steer through the perilous shoals ahead. In polls, Bush still scores higher on leadership qualities: strength, trustworthiness and the ability to handle a crisis.
Some Democratic consultants outside the campaign worry that even though Kerry consistently talks about such kitchen-table issues as health care and education, the voting public has not yet identified him with an overarching message. “If I had to size up the Kerry campaign as a theater critic, I would say it’s still in New Haven, not yet on Broadway,” Whitehead notes. “He has to perform well on the stump and have a coherent and compelling message by September 15. This is all warm-up and pre-season.”
Maybe at the end of the day, Kerry will only have to show voters he can chew gum, walk and not invade a country on false premises at the same time. If Bush keeps losing the confidence of the electorate, that could suffice. But much can happen between now and Election Day. There will be more tidal waves of anti-Kerry ads from the Bush campaign. When a candidate, like Bush, has low approval ratings, it is usually easier for his campaign to bring down the ratings of his opponent than to lift his own. (Academic experts told the Washington Post this week that Bush’s anti-Kerry advertisements have been the most negative and inaccurate spots hurled by a presidential campaign in recent memory.)
And there’s no telling how external events — more trouble in Iraq, another terrorist attack, the capture of Osama bin Laden — will change the context of the election for those 57 swing voters in the four swing states who presumably will decide the election for the rest of us.
“People shouldn’t misunderstand Kerry because they are not comfortable with his style,” a senior Kerry adviser says. “He’s not the greatest candidate in history. But beating Bush is a collective endeavor.” That may be true, but Kerry could improve the odds of this venture if he and his aides figure out how to mount an effort that energizes voters as much as provides them a safe and reliable alternative who is, like his campaign, fine.