WASHINGTON – Fighting earlier and uglier than usual, President Bush and Democrat John Kerry (search) are in a race to shape the campaign for the White House on their terms — tax cuts and terrorism for Bush, joblessness and change for Kerry.
Both camps can taste victory, but fear defeat at the hands of an evenly divided electorate.
"Each side wants to try and lay down some markers about who they are and what their campaign will be about," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus.
Bush partisans fret over the president's sagging poll numbers, and wonder whether he let Democratic criticisms go unanswered too long. Kerry backers tremble over the Republican's financial advantages, and wait anxiously for Kerry to fashion a general election message.
Less than two weeks ago, Bush called Kerry to congratulate his rival for cementing the Democratic nomination, possibly their last exchange of kind words until Nov. 2, when one candidate accepts and the other concedes.
Just last week, Bush accused Kerry of proposing "deeply irresponsible" cuts in intelligence spending. The Democrat said Bush broke his promises to senior citizens. Bush labeled Kerry an economic isolationist. Kerry called his Republican critics "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen."
While sticks and stones may break some bones, negative advertising will hurt you. Thus, Bush spent at least $6 million to air television ads in 18 states this week, portraying Kerry as a tax-hiking, soft-on-terrorism rival. Kerry responded with an ad accusing Bush of distorting the facts.
"Oh, Lord," said Democratic operative Donna Brazile, "The Kerry campaign doesn't have the resources for that ad. I'm about to dip into my own pockets, I feel so sorry for them."
Kerry spent one-third as much as Bush on his ads. Two interest groups favoring Kerry — but acting independently — also are spending millions on ads.
Taken together, Bush's rivals may have managed to even the advertising playing field, according to Kerry and Bush officials. The question is how long they can keep pace with Bush, who has raised more than $160 million.
Some Democrats fear Bush's ads will shift voters' interest from the weak economy and troubles in Iraq — topics that favor Kerry — to a debate over Kerry's proposed tax increases and reminders of the terrorist attacks, when the president' s popularity soared.
"Bush has succeeded in the first two weeks of the election to push it into his territory. That's a problem," said Brazile, manager of Al Gore's 2000 campaign.
Several Democrats, including some of Kerry's top advisers, said the nominee-in-waiting has failed thus far to find his general election voice. His primary season message was simple: Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he was the best qualified to beat Bush. But now he must give voters a reason to switch presidents during war.
"The campaign should unabashedly show the swing voters that, when it comes to restoring America to greatness, to restarting our economy, to making the world a safer and freer place, John Kerry will make sure no one is left drowning in the water," Backus said.
Doug Sosnik (search), a top adviser in the Clinton White House, said Bush wins if the war on terrorism dominates the election. Kerry wins if it's the economy, as it was during Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign against Bush's father.
"What the White House is doing is smart, but how they're doing it is dumb," Sosnik said. "It's crazy for him to be attacking Kerry by name. It looks so unpresidential."
Bush's advisers conducted two separate focus groups in St. Louis last week and found swing voters dismissing criticism of his first ads, which used images of Sept. 11. They also pointed to public polls that show voters are more interested in the campaign now than they have been in the month before the last two presidential elections.
"People keep saying, 'Oh, it's too early. It's too early.' Well, we have this window of great interest that's eventually going to close, and we're going to take advantage of it," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd.
It may be that Bush had no choice.
Polls show his approval rating has slipped to the lowest level of his presidency. A majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. More than 2.3 million jobs have been lost since he took office.
Polls consistently show that the economy and jobs are the most important issues to voters, and Kerry is considered best qualified to fix things. Terrorism and national security are by far Bush's strong suit, but they rank behind the economy among voter concerns — sometimes by double digits.
The good news for Bush is that negative attacks work. A survey for National Public Radio, conducted by two prominent pollsters, one Republican and one Democratic, showed Bush scoring higher on the topic of "jobs and trade" when the questions included criticism of Kerry's record.
It also showed that Kerry could neutralize Bush's edge on the issues of "Iraq and terrorism" and gay marriage.
"This finding has implications for the tone of the debate to come," the poll concluded.