WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search), trying to recover from a brass-knuckles campaign against his character, is attempting to steer the election to a referendum on President Bush's leadership.
Kerry has less than seven weeks to take over the lead in the presidential race. Democrats hope a major shift will come from the debates, but his strategy in the meantime is based less on building himself up than on tearing down the president.
Bush has enjoyed a slight lead in national polls since the Republican National Convention (search), but the gap appears to be narrowing. Republicans portrayed Kerry as a vacillating opportunist while Democrats remained largely positive during their convention five weeks earlier. Now they are trying to make the case that Bush has not been honest in his life and his leadership.
"It's time we had a president who tells the American people the truth," Kerry said in Ohio. "It's that simple."
The strategy comes late in the campaign. Democrats acknowledge Kerry has had difficulty pinning down the message he wants voters to take to the ballot box on Nov. 2, while the Bush campaign has been more disciplined and consistent.
Now Kerry is trying to turn Bush's policy choices into character flaws.
He told the Detroit Economic Club (search) that Bush has not taken responsibility for the economic downturn and is running an "excuse presidency." He told voters in Milwaukee that Bush's failure to push for a renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired Monday "goes to the character of the president and the leadership we ought to have in this country."
While Kerry tries to persuade voters that Bush has broken his word repeatedly, the Democratic National Committee plans to step up its campaign, dubbed "Operation Fortunate Son," against Bush's character.
So far, the DNC's effort has been focused on accusing Bush of using family connections to get into the National Guard during the Vietnam War, then skipping his duty. DNC strategist Howard Wolfson said the campaign has helped drive down the president's credibility ratings and next will raise questions about Bush's business career.
"This is someone whose career in business was the product of special favors not available to the average person," Wolfson said.
Some Democrats are growing frustrated that voters don't seem to be turning against Bush in greater numbers. Kerry has some figures on his side — higher unemployment than when the president took office, more people without health care, more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq and a growing national debt.
"Incumbents always have a better run in peace and prosperity," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager who now works for independent groups trying to oust Bush. "George Bush has neither."
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm says Kerry needs to amplify the domestic ills of health care and job losses. The strategy seems to be working in her state, where Kerry has opened a lead in the most recent poll, but not in some of the other Midwest battlegrounds that have lost jobs.
"I don't understand why it's not getting through in Ohio, especially, because their experience is so similar to ours," Granholm said.
Bush's latest ad running in Michigan, Ohio and other battlegrounds says Kerry's health care plan would be controlled by the government. "Not true," Kerry's campaign says in an ad released Thursday.
The Kerry campaign's strategy culminates with the debates, where they hope to put Bush on the spot to answer for what they say is a failed record. The Bush team, meanwhile, is getting more material to help make the case that Kerry is inconsistent.
Kerry still has a tough time explaining his position on Iraq. He told radio host Don Imus on Wednesday that the United States should never have gone to war in Iraq, even though he voted for the congressional resolution authorizing it. He said he voted that way because of the claims about weapons of mass destruction, which seemed to contradict his statement a month earlier that he would still have voted for the war even if he had known Iraq did not have any such weapons.
Democratic consultant Donna Brazile says Kerry needs to stick to one argument and "put some Tabasco in the bland message."
"He got body slammed at the convention and it hurt him," said Brazile, who managed Democrat Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "A lot of people are still interested in change in this country. Kerry just has to say, 'I'm the change, I'm the change."'