Too Hot for the Doldrums

Vice President Dick Cheney hits Sen. John Kerry hard on his foreign policy record in a speech. New ads for the president's re-election campaign accuse the Massachusetts Democrat of failing to support U.S. troops in Iraq. Kerry strikes back on each count and runs ads of his own. It's hard to believe the election is more than seven months away, and harder still to believe political pros call this "the doldrums."

But that's what this part of the presidential election year is usually called. From the end of the contested primaries to the beginning of the party conventions, not much is supposed to happen. But the doldrums can be dangerous for candidates, just as they are for sailors. And this year, for these candidates, they pose some peculiar challenges.

Incumbents usually like to stay "above the fray" as long as possible. George Bush Sr. never uttered Bill Clinton's name until August of 1992. Ronald Reagan never said the words "Walter Mondale" until October of 1984 and then, when asked what he thought of "Mondale's charges," replied: "I think he should pay them."

George W. Bush, on the other hand, has decided at this early date, to take the fight to Kerry himself — early and often. Democrats say that sacrifices Bush's aura as commander-in-chief and makes him less president and more politician.

Republicans worry about leveling the playing field this way, but say the White House had no choice. He had to respond personally because the Democratic primaries turned out to be a months-long attack on his person and stewardship, rather than an intraparty feud resulting in a bloody and battered nominee — as expected. Polls showed a downturn in the public's outlook (60 percent saying the U.S. was on "the wrong track") and in the incumbent's approval ratings.

Of course, the president does not go forward to battle alone. He can delegate lots of the heavy work to his surrogates. The vice president is obviously a potent weapon in this fight, and Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot has been able to get good media play as well. The campaign has also been effective at producing and airing TV and radio ads that, so far at least, make news on their own. This is why raising more than $150 million matters.

The greater challenges of the season face the challenger. Kerry got the nomination early, just as the designers of the accelerated primary schedule intended, with plenty of time to unify the party, raise money and turn to themes for the general election. But the lengthier doldrums also mean a prolonged period in which Kerry the nominee is at maximum vulnerability.

The Bush campaign not only has cash Kerry can't match, it also has the White House. Anything the president does is news, and much of it can be staged to look good — from a Rose Garden announcement to a visit with the troops at Fort Campbell, Ky. Kerry will have to work harder to get coverage, especially the kind of coverage that would introduce and define him to the vast majority of Americans who did not vote in the Democratic primaries.

What's more likely to keep Kerry's face before the public is the TV campaign the Bush campaign can mount after mining lots of ammunition from Kerry's 19 years of Senate votes.

So we have begun a very long and hard-fought race — long enough for plenty of reversals in the fortunes of both candidates, long enough for slips and comebacks. We don't know yet how voters will weather such a long slog. Polls show they are unusually engaged for March. Let's hope they still are in November.

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