KETCHUM, Idaho – As John Kerry (search) was snowboarding down Idaho's Bald Mountain, the Bush-Cheney campaign was racing headlong in challenging the Democrat's credentials, a contrast that raised questions about the timing of the presumptive presidential nominee's vacation.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and senior administration officials have been challenging Kerry's claims of support from foreign leaders while the campaign has criticized the four-term Massachusetts senator's votes on defense and foreign policy. The campaign also has unleashed ads casting Kerry as a waffler and weak on military issues.
The timing is critical as voters' image of the Democrat is evolving. Kerry's break from the public stage is allowing his rival to fill the void and draw a picture.
"This is probably one of the worst times because we're right in the middle of the struggle to define him," said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (search).
After a grueling primary race that dates to last year, Kerry was spending six days with his wife, Teresa Heinz, at a family home in Sun Valley with no public events planned. Skiing and reading were on the schedule, with the possibility that Kerry would step out to respond to criticism if warranted.
Kerry left it to campaign aides to answer Bush's latest ads on Thursday.
Advisers to the Democrat argue that the break is long overdue, with Kerry in need of some rest and relaxation. The tired candidate has been prone to off-the-cuff remarks that have proved problematic, including comments last week that his Republican critics were "crooked" and "lying." Kerry also was criticized for saying foreign leaders prefer his candidacy and then declining to identify them.
"This guy has been wide-open, nonstop for months," said veteran Democratic consultant Dane Strother, who noted that an exhausted candidate is a dangerous candidate. "You leave yourself open to the possibility of making a major gaffe. You've got to recharge at some point."
Consultant Jenny Backus conceded that this is an important stage of the race, but argued that the crucial stretch will come in the fall as swing voters begin to tune in.
"It is March," she said. "We have a long time to go. The most important phase is to close strong."
Campaign aides said that while Kerry was taking a break, the staff was putting together an aggressive strategy to highlight the differences with Bush. Also on tap next week is a major Democratic fund-raiser in Washington with former Presidents Clinton and Carter.
Throughout the primary, Kerry's core message to Democratic voters was that he had the best shot at defeating Bush, and with many Democrats hungry for a win, it worked. Now Kerry must develop a general election theme that can sway swing voters likely to decide the election. Bush's theme is he's a wartime president and the country can't afford to switch leaders in a time of crisis,
"We will lay out a series of speeches on what John Kerry can do," spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said. She said Kerry planned a major speech on the economy, and would seek to renew the debate over health care and criticize the record deficits Bush is amassing.
"We will put out a detailed budget sometime in the future that will show how to get back on track," Cutter said.
Ornstein said Kerry is certain to take a battering, and it might make sense to get some rest out of the way quickly.
"The problem is, there's not a good time to vacation," Ornstein said.