Photo by Ted Soqui

The president, I suspect, is already descending. The Time and Newsweek polls, taken during (and, in the case of Newsweek, a few hours following) the Republican convention, had Bush bouncing up to an 11-point lead; the CNN/USA Today poll taken over the weekend had that lead down to 7 percent among likely voters and just 1 percent among registered voters.

Do I protest too much? Probably. From every available indicator, Bush has opened a lead in the aftermath of last week’s convention and last month’s Swift Boat attacks, with which the convention was clearly coordinated. The Swift Boat lies were intended to undermine John Kerry’s credibility as a leader; the main motif of the Republican convention was to extol Bush’s.

Among the things that bolstered Bush’s credibility, I would not rank his acceptance speech all that high. The first half-hour was a snoozer, a perfunctory tour of domestic positions for which Bush himself seemed unable to summon much enthusiasm. (If he’d stopped and said, “You know, this stuff bores my ass” — as was plainly the case — I might momentarily have considered voting for the guy.) The final 10 minutes were very strongly written — the line “Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom” was a brilliant assertion of theism so metaphoric that secularists could not easily object.

I viewed Bush’s speech from the cheap seats in the press gallery, right next to cartoonist-novelist Art Spiegelman, who was wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Pray for a Secular America.” It was the mirror opposite of Bush’s line, though when security guards yanked an utterly quiet Spiegelman out of his seat for five minutes in the middle of Bush’s speech to check him out, I don’t think it was the symmetry that set them off. That night in mid-Manhattan, the merest hint of a Bronx cheer was grounds for suspicion, if not detention.

Still, in the aftermath of the convention, Democrats are surely praying for something — to begin with, a little more clarity and focus from their nominee. August was a lousy month for John Kerry not just because he was slow in responding to the campaign of fabrications that cable TV reported as unchallenged fact. It’s not just that the Swift Boats took Kerry off-message in August; it’s that he had no clear message to begin with.

Losing the message in midstream, alas, is a long-established Democratic tradition. In 1988, the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis was so flummoxed that just a few weeks before the November election, campaign managers spent a day in their headquarters writing the reasons to vote for Dukakis on pieces of butcher paper they’d hung on the walls. Al Gore’s campaign drifted aimlessly through the spring and summer of 2000, until pollster-strategist Stan Greenberg came onboard to give it a populist focus at the time of the national convention. The one clear exception to the rule of Democratic drift is Bill Clinton’s campaign of 1992, where the team of Greenberg, James Carville and Paul Begala came up with the centrist-populist “Putting People First” economic theme in late spring and stuck with it straight through November. But then, Bill Clinton has always been able to frame an issue to his maximum advantage (think of how “Save Social Security first” derailed the GOP’s tax cuts during his second term).

That’s clearly not a skill John Kerry possesses at the level of Clinton. When he’s off, he’s digressive, roundabout; his stump speeches sit there; his zingers don’t zing. When he’s on, however, he can be devastating, as Bill Weld — the onetime Massachusetts Republican governor who was favored to unseat Kerry in the 1996 U.S. Senate race — can readily attest. In their last two debates, Kerry pilloried Weld over his reluctance to name which programs he’d cut to pay for his tax-cut proposals, and over his support for a party then led by Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. Those were the two positions Weld could not plausibly defend to Massachusetts voters, and they were the two issues Kerry hammered on repeatedly — coming from behind to defeat Weld by seven points.

This time out, Kerry (who just added Greenberg and other Clintonistas to his retinue) needs to hammer Bush on both the economy and Iraq. Bush’s record on health care, for instance, is a vast swamp of vulnerabilities: He forbade the government from negotiating with drug companies on prices; he forbade Americans from importing their drugs from Canada; his own health-care proposal won’t enable more than 2 million or 3 million Americans to purchase health insurance — a figure that will surely be exceeded by the number of Americans who will lose their coverage in the next few years. Kerry’s own proposal, by independent estimates, will bring coverage to 27 million of America’s 45 million uninsured, for the simple reason that Kerry’s plan has a funding source: the restoration of Clinton-era tax rates on Americans making over $200,000 yearly. Kerry also proposes tapping into that funding source for the bucks that would enable a lot more young people to attend college. Bush, committed to extending tax cuts for the rich, contemplates no comparable increase in tuition assistance.

On Iraq, Kerry needs to make clear that even though he authorized Bush to go to war, Bush did so in the worst way possible, and that the mess on the ground — and the massive diversion of U.S. dollars to that mess — is entirely of the president’s making. It’s up to Kerry to decouple — again — the actual war from the battle against terrorism, under which banner the Bush people place every administration action since September 2001.

In this endeavor, Kerry has the facts on his side. Median household income has declined by $1,535 since 2000 (to $43,318); U.S. fatalities in Iraq this week surpassed 1,000, and the prospects of an Iraqi Tet cannot be dismissed. Which is to say, Kerry needs to change the subject of this campaign back to reality: No easy chore, but as he’s shown in his earlier outings, he has the chops to do it.

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