NBC News and news services
updated 3/15/2004 4:39:02 PM ET 2004-03-15T21:39:02

Fighting earlier and uglier than usual, President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts are in a race to shape the campaign for the White House on their terms — tax cuts and terrorism for Bush, joblessness and change for Kerry.

Both camps can taste victory but fear defeat at the hands of an evenly divided electorate.

“Each side wants to try and lay down some markers about who they are and what their campaign will be about,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist.

Bush partisans fret over the president’s sagging poll numbers and wonder whether he let Democratic criticisms go unanswered too long. Kerry backers tremble over the Republican’s financial advantages and wait anxiously for Kerry to fashion a general election message.

Less than two weeks ago, Bush called to congratulate Kerry for cementing the Democratic nomination for president, possibly their last exchange of kind words until Nov. 2, when one candidate accepts and the other concedes.

Charges, countercharges
Bush last week accused Kerry of proposing “deeply irresponsible” cuts in intelligence spending. Kerry said Bush broke his promises to senior citizens. Bush labeled Kerry an economic isolationist. Kerry called his Republican critics “the most crooked ... lying group I’ve ever seen.”

In a speech Monday to the firefighters union, Kerry focused on a report in The New York Times that federal investigators were examining television reports in which the administration paid people to pose as journalists and praise the Medicare law that offers a prescription drug benefit for the elderly.

“They’ve hired actors to pose as journalists to sell a bad bill with your money,” Kerry said. “After already hiring actors to pose as soldiers in the president’s campaign commercials, you have to wonder: How many Oscar-winning performances will it take to convince America that George Bush can put America back on track?”

Back and forth over ads
While sticks and stones may break some bones, negative advertising will hurt you. So Bush spent at least $6 million to air television advertisements in 18 states last week, portraying Kerry as a tax-hiking, soft-on-terrorism rival. Kerry responded with an ad accusing Bush of distorting the facts.

“Oh, Lord,” said Donna Brazile, another Democratic operative. “The Kerry campaign doesn’t have the resources for that ad. I’m about to dip into my own pockets, I feel so sorry for them.”

Kerry spent a third as much as Bush on his ads. Two interest groups favoring Kerry  but acting independently also are spending millions on ads.

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Taken together, Bush’s rivals may have managed to even the advertising playing field, according to Kerry and Bush officials. The question is how long they can keep pace with Bush, who has raised more than $160 million.

Some Democrats fear that Bush’s ads will shift voters’ interest from the weak economy and troubles in Iraq — topics that favor Kerry — to a debate over Kerry’s proposed tax increases and reminders of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the president’s popularity soared.

“Bush has succeeded in the first two weeks of the election to push it into his territory. That’s a problem,” said Brazile, who managed Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in 2000.

Several Democrats, including some of his top advisers, said Kerry had failed thus far to find his voice for the general election. His primary season message was simple: Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said he was the best qualified to beat Bush. But now he must give voters a reason to switch presidents during war.

“The campaign should unabashedly show the swing voters that, when it comes to restoring America to greatness, to restarting our economy, to making the world a safer and freer place, John Kerry will make sure no one is left drowning in the water,” Backus said.

Doug Sosnik, a top adviser in the White House during the Clinton administration, said Bush would win if the war on terrorism dominated the election. Kerry would win if it were dominated by the economy, as it was during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against Bush’s father, he said.

“What the White House is doing is smart, but how they’re doing it is dumb,” Sosnik said. “It’s crazy for him to be attacking Kerry by name. It looks so unpresidential.”

Bush’s advisers conducted two focus groups in St. Louis last week and found swing voters dismissing the criticism of his first ads, which used images of Sept. 11. They also pointed to public polls that showed that voters were more interested in the campaign now than they had been in the month before the last two presidential elections.

“People keep saying: ‘Oh, it’s too early. It’s too early.’ Well, we have this window of great interest that’s eventually going to close, and we’re going to take advantage of it,” said Matthew Dowd, a strategist for the Bush campaign.

Bush on the defensive
It may be that Bush had no choice.

Polls show his approval rating has slipped to the lowest level of his presidency. A majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. More than 2.3 million jobs have been lost since he took office.

Polls consistently show that the economy and jobs are the most important issues to voters and that Kerry is considered best qualified to fix things. Terrorism and national security are Bush’s strong suit by far, but they rank behind the economy among voter concerns, sometimes by double digits.

The good news for Bush is that negative attacks work. A survey for National Public Radio  conducted by two prominent pollsters, one Republican and one Democratic, showed Bush scoring higher on the topic of “jobs and trade” when the questions included criticism of Kerry’s record.

It also showed that Kerry could neutralize Bush’s edge on the issues of “Iraq and terrorism” and same-sex marriage.

“This finding has implications for the tone of the debate to come,” the poll concluded.

Sharpton backs Kerry but stays in race
Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the two other Democrats in the race, said Monday that he would support Kerry as the inevitable Democratic nominee but would not abandon his own campaign.

After a meeting with Kerry at Kerry’s campaign headquarters in Washington, where dozens of Kerry staffers gave him an ovation, Sharpton told reporters that he would officially stay in the race so he could carry issues important to his supporters to the Democratic National Convention next summer.

The most important task, Sharpton said, was to determine now whom and what the party would stand for in order to beat Bush.

The third remaining Democrat, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, said Sunday in East Peoria, Ill., that he, too, would stay in the race for now.

NBC’s Javier Morgado and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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