By contributor
updated 4/22/2004 11:08:42 AM ET 2004-04-22T15:08:42

Sen. John Kerry's spin doctors claim that they haven't lost ground to George Bush in recent weeks, and they are staging what they insist is the "launch" of his general election campaign this week with new TV ads airing and a trip next week to the Midwest. But the fact is that Kerry has lost ground — ground he has to make up if he hopes to win in November. The more interesting question is why? My reasons:

  • Richard Ben-Veniste & Co. The media loved the 9/11 commission hearings. By instinct, we thrilled to watch a prosecutor such as B-V on the hunt, creeping in on a witness like a big cat. But the commission, which served as a platform for the theatrical Richard Clarke and the cross-examinations of Democratic members, eventually came off as too political and partisan to damage the president. Just the opposite, I think. Too many of the commissioners ended up looking like they were pressing to prove that Bush could have and should have prevented the 9/11 catastrophe — a theory the public doesn’t buy. In fact, most Americans tend to blame the rise of terrorism here on the eight-year Clinton administration. Bush, without having to say much, was able to play the political victim.
  • Fallujah and Najaf. Politics is a game of context. And for now, this early in the campaign, the context isn’t Bush versus Kerry — it’s Bush versus the murderers and thugs. The first reaction of Americans wasn’t “what were those contractors doing in Fallujah in the first place?” It was “we must punish the beasts who killed and savagely mutilated them.” As a political analyst, my first thought was: All this video is bad for Bush, because it makes his Iraq policy look like a failure. I was wrong, of course. His may pay politically for Iraq at some point, but not right now. For now, it’s still rally ’round the commander-in-chief, if for no other reason than to show that we are not Spain.
  • “Resolve.” In politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. Bush has a plan and a vision: His goal is to protect the American homeland by spreading democracy (by military force if necessary) to the cockpit of Islamic fundamentalism. This idea strikes many serious people as naïve and grandiose at best, dangerously imperious and counter-productive at worst. But what, precisely, is the better idea? Kerry certainly hasn’t made that clear. “Winning hearts and minds” sounds nice, but how do you do that these days? Relying on the United Nations sounds good, too, except that the U.N. has little real credibility. Reinventing the CIA clearly is necessary, but it will take America years if not decades to approach the sophistication of the British — and even they are eyeless in Gaza. Polls show that voters still think it was a good idea to go to Iraq, though they think that by an ever-dwindling margin. But they probably won’t abandon that belief — or Bush — until they can clearly see an alternative answer. Indeed, in most important ways, Kerry seems to basically agree with Bush on the goals and current strategies in Iraq.
  • Bob Woodward’s blessing. He certainly didn’t intend to do so, but the great Watergate reporter’s new book, “Plan of Attack,” gives President Bush some cover — which is why it’s listed on the Bush-Cheney ’04 Web site as recommended reading. No, Bush didn’t convene the war cabinet to assess the risks of going to Iraq. But Woodward portrays the president as insisting on the need to prove the case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. According to Woodward, CIA Director George Tenet told Bush that making such a case would be a “slam dunk.” Stories about the president’s reliance on faith and on a “higher father” to give him strength scare many voters. But most of those particular voters lost to Bush long ago. On the other hand, I can think of swing voters I’ve interviewed in Ohio and Florida who would be reassured, not shocked, that Bush would pray as he leads.
  • Tony & Trump. Let’s face it, as a people we tend to like simple answers and strong leaders who propound them. That may be especially true in these, the early years of what is likely to be a long, twilight struggle against terrorism. The “Sopranos” were popular before 9/11, but even more so now. In these parlous times, Tony Soprano is the king of cable, Donald Trump the king of broadcast TV. There is a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consequences aura to them both. An oversimplification, for sure:  I’m obviously not proposing moral equivalence between a mob boss and the estimable real estate developer. But this is a time, it seems, when we are enamored of harsh methods. “Bring it on!”
  • Fifty million bucks worth of ads. The Bush campaign has been nothing if not methodical. They laid out their program in February, adapted it to Kerry late that month, and have been playing out the plan since: starting with “positives” about Bush and 9/11 (the controversial “firefighter” ad); then a series on taxes and the economy timed to the approach of Tax Day; now, since April 15, going at Kerry full bore for his vote against the $87 billion funding for the war. In the 18 or so battleground states, Bush-Cheney has been on the air big time. Competing spinners assess the magnitude of the results differently. Listening to both sides, I assess it this way: BC04 drove all of the Republicans away from Kerry in the battleground states, and back into the Bush fold. But BC04 probably still has a long way to go — all the way to Election Day — to get the swing voters who will decide the destiny of those states.
  • The Economy. It is improving in most places in most ways. West Virginia is a good example. Bush won it in 2000 on the strength of protectionist promises made to steelworkers there. He has since dialed back on protection, and you would think that that presented a big opening to the Democrats there. But, for other reasons (voracious demand in China, mostly) the American steel industry is booming. There are other local and national trends out there. Some of that good news is getting out, which is why Bush’s numbers — still not great — are improving for handling the economy. And, as in Iraq, Kerry’s proposals aren’t radically different. He’s even in favor of keeping most of Bush’s tax cuts in place.
  • Nader. I went to see him at a breakfast with reporters the other day, and expected to see a doddering fellow ready for the retirement home. Nothing could be further from the truth. Still sharp and energetic — and still possessed of his radar-like ability to hone in on the faults of the corporate/political establishment — Nader is a dagger pointed straight at the Kerry campaign. In the Washington Post poll, for example, he draws six points in a three-way match, compared with 48 for Bush and 44 for Kerry. Nader insists that he will draw equally from Democrats and Republicans; I don’t see it. And with Kerry taking a carefully modulated line on Iraq (made necessary by his $87 billion vote), Nader is free to be the Peace Candidate and the all-out anti Big Business candidate, too.
  • Kerry, of course. John Kerry is durable, unflappable and determined. He works to be in the right place at the right time, and often is. He has no illusions about his own star power or charisma. He is a wooden campaigner, and his 20 years in the Senate have left him unable to see that bragging about legislative maneuvers is the last thing you want to do. Kerry explained to supporters recently that he’d voted for the $87 billion before he’d voted against it. In his mind, evidently, he was merely explaining (with a mordant sense of humor) how the Senate works. But now that line is the centerpiece of a BC04 attack ad. Kerry told financial supporters in New York the other week that his objective, for now, was to “preserve my acceptability.” That’s a pretty low standard — but one he won’t meet if that is his only goal. So far, his strategy has amounted mostly to: Vote for me, I’m not Bush. That’s not enough, especially if Kerry is seen by most voters the way the BC04 ad portrays him: as a flip-flopping manipulative insider.Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.

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