NEW YORK – Presidential elections traditionally get serious after the party conventions, and the next two months of campaigning will likely determine the next president of the United States.
In a rare exception, this year, the campaigns have been in high gear for months, with tens of millions of dollars already spent on the presidential contest. Still, with the electorate remaining almost evenly divided, political experts say the candidates' debates and campaign strategy to be key elements in deciding the winner on Nov. 2.
"We have three debates coming up. Those debates are going to send a very strong message about where they stand. Kerry has a chance to get out of the panic mode," said Fox News political analyst Tammy Bruce, who added that the GOP emerged in a strong position after the Republican National Convention (search) this week.
The tone has been set for a nasty fight, with ads questioning John Kerry's Vietnam service and charges that President Bush lied to take America to war in Iraq. Speakers at the Republican convention threw gasoline on that fire, with sharp rhetoric coming from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Dick Cheney, and most notably, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (search) of Georgia.
Analysts expect that tone to continue, if not worsen.
Calling the convention a "nonstop attack on John Kerry," Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers said, "We can expect him to be going on the offensive and defend himself as well."
On Friday, political experts said the GOP performed well in the convention, and they expected a boost in the polls.
"Bush is going to get a bounce from this convention," said Fox News Convention analyst Rick Davis. "He’ll go into post-Labor Day as a favorite."
"It was a pretty impressive convention," said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard (search). "My hunch is that by Monday, Bush will be considerably ahead in the polls."
Both campaigns have busy schedules targeting swing states.
Bush's post-convention stumping started on Friday and included stops in Pennsylvania, Iowa and Wisconsin, and a trip to Ohio on Saturday. On Saturday, Vice President Dick Cheney will speak at a rally in Roswell, N.M.
Kerry and Edwards kicked off the final two months of the campaign in Springfield, Ohio, where they responded to the president immediately after his Thursday night convention speech.
"This is the moment we've all been waiting for. The conventions are over," Kerry said. "We ask you to join us in this effort to change the direction of our country."
Brad Blakeman, former deputy assistant to Bush criticized this rapid-fire response to the convention. "His campaign is in trouble, and it's an act of desperation what he did last night, and the American people can see it."
One sign that the campaign is in trouble, Blakeman said, is its staffing changes. The campaign last week added two sets of hands from Bill Clinton's administration — former White House aide Joel Johnson and former spokesman Joe Lockhart.
"Campaign shake-ups, which they claim are not extraordinary, are," Blakeman said.
Both campaigns are planning ad blitzes in the run up to the election.
On Thursday, the Kerry campaign announced that "it will begin the general election sprint with two new ads," part of the campaign's planned $50 million ad buy.
In an ad that began running today in the battleground state of Ohio, an announcer says, "It's America's heartland, but it's been hit hard. In the past four years, Ohio has lost 230,000 jobs. President Bush insists the economy is just fine. We know America can do better."
In a 30-second spot that will begin airing on national cable channels on Sept. 7, Kerry says, "The fundamental choice in this election is between a president who will fight for the middle class, and a president who sides with the special interests in this country."
The Bush campaign will certainly answer tit for tat. Because it has been basking in the free media attention surrounding the convention, the campaign has not released an advertisement since Aug. 23, when it hit Kerry on taxes.
After the convention, however, the Bush-Cheney team was launching three new ads on several new proposals the president described in his Thursday night speech. In the ads, Bush vows to "spread ownership and opportunity," "make our economy more job friendly" and help lower health care costs.
"We have come through a lot together. During the next four years, we'll spread ownership and opportunity," Bush says in one of the ads. "We've got to make sure our workers have the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century."
Debates will also be a key element of the campaign. The 2000 debates, in which Bush exceeded expectations while former Vice President Al Gore was underwhelming, contributed to Bush's victory. Cheney said Thursday that Bush is already prepping for the debates — the first of which will take place on Sept. 30 — with Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, who helped coach Bush in 2000.
The debates are all taking place in swing states. The Sept. 30 debate will be held at the University of Miami. Subsequent debates will occur on Oct. 8 in Missouri and Oct. 13 in Arizona. The only vice presidential debate will be held in Ohio on Oct. 5.