WASHINGTON – With the spotlight on his candidacy, John Kerry (search) improved public perception of his character and qualifications but failed to shake-up the presidential race. Now, the focus shifts to President Bush (search) — and all his hurdles to re-election.
The Iraq (search) war, which most voters think was a mistake.
The economy, which most voters don't trust with the Republican.
The direction of the country, which most voters think is headed south.
The tough job of changing those perceptions began the moment Kerry left his nominating convention. While in Boston, a heavy emphasis on the Democrat's sterling war record impressed male voters, according to an Associated Press poll, improving his ratings on honesty, intelligence, likability and even Bush's strongest issue — the ability to protect the country.
But the bottom line did not change. Kerry and running mate John Edwards (search) are essentially tied with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) in the AP-Ipsos Public Affairs national poll. In two key states, Florida and New Hampshire, the Democratic ticket has opened up slight leads, according to the American Research Group.
Still, the president's advisers said they were relieved by post-convention polls, having braced themselves for party-wide panic had Kerry managed to open up a significant lead in national surveys.
"If you would have told me that we'd be tied coming out of his convention I would have said you're drunk or insane," Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said. "Then I would have said, 'I'll take it!'"
Kerry's team spun it the other way, saying there is little room for gains because too many voters have already taken sides. "When we looked at the polls, we said, 'Great news. We moved the numbers we needed to move,'" Kerry spokeswoman Debra DeShong said.
Bush and his political team contend that Kerry made two mistakes at his convention, and they vow not to repeat them.
— Kerry and his surrogates didn't criticize Bush enough.
— There was relatively little talk about Kerry's policies, though the Democrat has enough proposals to literally fill a book.
Bush and his allies won't be shy about going negative against Kerry during their Aug. 30-Sept. 2 convention, White House advisers said. The president also will outline a second-term agenda, including some new initiatives that will be rolled out before, during or after the New York convention.
Bush hopes to rally Republicans with tough-on-terrorism talk and images designed to rekindle memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when his response sent his approval ratings soaring.
His advisers say the tactic also will peel away some of the swing voters who moved to Kerry in July and tend to be influenced by the latest big event, such as a nominating convention or terror alerts. Men tend to favor Bush over Kerry, thus the president could win back some of those voters.
Bush's latest television ads use warm-and-fuzzy images to tout his fight against terrorism while alluding to a rosier future: "Freedom, faith, families, and sacrifice. President Bush — moving America forward."
In another attempt to reach voters in the political middle, Bush is filling his convention agenda with moderate Republicans, such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as maverick Arizona Sen. John McCain, who remains popular with independents.
"It's probably too late to convince voters for a second time that he is a different kind of Republican," said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, a former Kerry adviser who now runs an independent group airing ads critical of Bush. "But, for the first time since the inauguration, is he making gestures to the middle?"
It will be hard for Bush to persuade skeptical undecided voters to change their minds about him, after nearly four years in office. But it might not be any easier for Kerry to convince those same voters that change is necessary, and worth the risk, at a time of war.
According to the AP-Ipsos poll, 59 percent of registered voters believe the country is on the wrong track (compared with 56 percent in July), only 46 percent approve of Bush's handling of the economy (compared with 49 percent in July) and half believe it was a mistake to go into Iraq (up from 40 percent in April).
Bush is seen as stronger and more decisive than Kerry, but the Democrat is considered smarter, more honest and less stubborn, according to the AP-Ipsos poll.
Among independents, Kerry gained on Bush on the issues of optimism, inspiration and values, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey (search).