NEW YORK – Anxiously watching President Bush's convention, Democratic leaders are urging John Kerry (search) to step up his attack on the Republican incumbent before eroding approval ratings become a serious political problem.
The candidate and his beleaguered staff are being flooded with advice, much of it contradictory. Some party officials want Kerry to criticize the president for sitting out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard (search ). Others say that would draw unwanted attention to accusations about Kerry's combat experience.
Democrats have seen Bush erase the gains that their nominee made at his convention a month ago in Boston, pulling into a tie in national polls that also show Kerry's personal image deteriorating.
In the broad scheme of things, the GOP advances may be nothing more than a political adjustment — a nudge of the pendulum, rather than a big swing. But for some Democrats, the president's momentum came as a shock, in part because Kerry's team had bragged openly that Boston had set the stage for victory.
That was their first mistake.
"It's never a good idea to get people too excited too early," said Bill Carrick, a leading Democratic strategist from California.
After raising expectations, Kerry listened to campaign consultants advising him to let surrogates respond to accusations that he exaggerated his medal-winning wartime service. They wanted him to remain above the fray, and he did, until the accusations from the group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search ) began tugging him down.
By the time Kerry personally struck back, calling the group a front for Bush spreading "lies about my record," the damage was done. Polls show Bush is now favored over Kerry on questions of who is more qualified to be commander in chief and which candidate is more honest. Immediately after his convention, Kerry led on both questions.
Bush also has erased Kerry's lead on who would best deal with the economy, and has opened a gap on who voters prefer to lead the war against terror.
In a race this close, the smallest shifts in voter preferences send partisans atwitter. Just last week, nervous Republicans were urging Bush to unveil a robust second-term agenda to shift voters' focus from the unpopular war in Iraq. Now, with the confetti set to fall, Republicans are temporarily in line while Democrats suffer angst.
"Bush and his surrogates have been vicious and unforgiving" with the Swift boat claims, said Frank Schreck, a top party fund-raiser from Nevada, "and they have scored a lot of political points."
Schreck wants Kerry to bluntly compare war records with the president. "Why not stand up there and say, `He chose to have his father get him out of harm's way while I volunteered to risk my life?'" The Bush campaign vigorously denies the president used his family's political influence to avoid Vietnam.
Ken Brock, a Democratic consultant in Michigan, said he wants to see Kerry fight back.
"Personally, I'm for somebody coming out and saying while Bush was in the Redneck Riviera, Kerry was picking shrapnel out of his butt," he said. "There are those who want John Kerry to drop his drawers and show America the scars."
The biggest complainers want Kerry to beef up his staff. The candidate himself is said to be angry with his team, quietly adding layers of new advisers to siphon authority from some aides. Rumors of a shake-up Wednesday were unfounded, but nonetheless distracted the Kerry team.
Outside the campaign, some Democrats want Kerry to put the intrigue to rest and shift his focus to the economy and Iraq, issues causing problems for Bush.
"My sense is the Swift boat stuff has been a major distraction, to say the least, for the campaign, and they need to get back to hammering him (Bush) every day on the economy and health care and the management of the war," Carrick said.
Mark Grebner, a Democratic strategist from Michigan, said Kerry still is in a strong position because Bush is politically weak. He said the only threat to Kerry is a terrorist strike, which would cause voters to rally around the commander in chief. "It's time to move on," he said.