msnbc.com
updated 3/25/2004 3:13:14 PM ET 2004-03-25T20:13:14

White House Derby rates this a good week for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and a bad one for President Bush. After a bad run of more than a week on the defensive due to his comments about foreign leaders endorsing his candidacy and his vote against $87 billion to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry went to Idaho for a spot of vacation. It was fortunate timing, as it turned out.

Kerry ceded the field to former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke ,who in a new book, in media interviews and in testimony to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, accused the Bush administration of not treating the al-Qaida threat seriously enough in the months before the strikes on New York and the Pentagon.

The commission also revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency had informed Bush that “the only long-term way to deal with the threat was to end al-Qaida's ability to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary for its operations.”

Prior to Sept. 11, neither Bush nor his predecessor, Bill Clinton, tried to rally the nation behind the idea of a pre-emptive attack on al-Qaida and the Taliban that would entail U.S. troops’ invading Afghanistan.

Polling in the days ahead will tell whether Clarke’s allegations sap support for Bush — and, just as important — whether Kerry makes progress in persuading voters that he’d do a better job than Bush in defending the nation.

Mostly on the strength of Clarke’s testimony, White House Derby rates Kerry ahead this week by a nose.

Look to polls in key states
While national polls have their place, keep a sharper eye out for poll data from the crucial states that neither party carried with more than 50 percent of the vote in the 2000 Bush-Gore battle.

Two such states: Nevada (five electoral votes) and New Hampshire (four electoral votes), both of which Bush carried by a narrow margin in 2000. (Reminder: 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency.)

A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll of Nevada voters conducted last week showed Bush with 49 percent to Kerry’s 38 percent. Ralph Nader garnered 4 percent, and 9 percent were undecided.

In New Hampshire a poll conducted last week showed Bush with 45 percent and Kerry with 39 percent, with 8 percent undecided and another 8 percent opting for Nader.

Bush teaches Kerry’s gas-tax history
The Bush campaign, which has already done extra-heavy TV ad purchases very early in the campaign season, continued its staccato this week with a new ad warning voters Kerry would try to add to their tax burden.

“Kerry even supported raising taxes on gasoline 50 cents a gallon,” the ad said, a reference to statements Kerry made 10 years ago.

The Kerry team responded that the 50 cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase was merely a proposal that Kerry looked at in 1994, but in the end “he decided it was not the right way to go.” Kerry did vote for a 4.3 cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax in 1993 as part of a deficit reduction measure.

The Kerry campaign said Bush was to blame for “the highest gas prices in history,” which it attributed partly to Bush’s “refusal to stand up to his big oil contributors.”

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