The longest, most expensive and arguably the most negative presidential campaign in modern times is — finally — entering its home stretch. With less than eight weeks to go, both President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry's campaigns are stepping up their attacks and working furiously to register and turn out their supporters.
Moderate messages aimed at middle-of-the-road voters are out of fashion this year — the goal is to drive up the other guy's negatives and fire up your own base.
For months, one of the features of this race was its frozen numbers. Polls showed the candidates were tied, within the statistical margin of error, and that relationship remained stubbornly stable.
As soon as Kerry was nominated, the president's campaign dropped $80 million worth of advertising attacking him. The numbers budged, but only barely and only temporarily. At the same time, months of horrific news from Iraq — having eroded the president's earlier in the year — have not seemed to hurt him since.
But in the last six weeks, the dynamic has begun to shift, slowly at first, then more perceptibly, in the president's favor. It began when the Democratic Convention, though successful by most assessments, failed to help Kerry much in the polls. That mild disappointment for the challenger was followed by the appearance of the anti-Kerry swift boat veterans, whose tiny ad buy was amplified by extensive news coverage in the doldrums of August.
Kerry's campaign was relatively silent at that point, conserving money for the fall and preferring not to make more of the ads than Kerry's inner circle thought necessary. Trying to ignore the ads did not work. The accusations achieved wide notice and changed the feel of the campaign — despite being largely discredited in the mainstream media — especially in the absence of a countervailing theme from the challenger.
Kerry's convention may also have been overly confident, operating on the theory that voters had already made up their minds about the incumbent and needed only to be convinced the alternative was acceptable. Re-election campaigns are referendums on the incumbent, after all. Kerry & Company thought all he had to do was make sure he met the threshold test: fitting voters' image of a commander in chief.
That explains the relentless and almost exclusive focus in Boston on Kerry's Vietnam record. The Bush campaign saw an opening. Since Kerry had failed to use Boston to "tell the story" about his Senate, the Bush campaign would tell that story its way.
As one frustrated Kerry staffer said: "Our campaign is too much about beating Bush and not enough about giving people a reason to vote for John Kerry."
In New York City, the Bush campaign had none of the compunctions that Kerry had about "going negative." The first three days of the GOP convention was an unbridled vivisection of Kerry's record and character. People may tell pollsters they hate this kind of stuff, but political operatives know it works. Witness the impact of the Kerry swift boat attacks. That's why we can expect to see both campaigns emphasizing the negative from this point on to November.
As one Republican political professional who's worked in every presidential campaign for the last 20 years explained to me: it is possible for an incumbent to win in an environment where his re-elect numbers are bad, where the right-direction vs. wrong-track numbers are bad and where his job approval ratings hover at or below 50%. But it is only possible if that incumbent can completely destroy his opponent as a credible alternative. That's a process that is not pretty to watch.
We're watching it now.
NPR's Mara Liasson is national political correspondent.