updated 4/30/2004 11:57:59 AM ET 2004-04-30T15:57:59

When Democrat John Kerry visits a battleground state, he’s far from alone.

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It’s a sure bet that supporters and surrogates of President Bush are already there and ready to talk in public in an effort to steal, or at least divert, the spotlight.

Ahead of Kerry’s visit Thursday to Harrisburg, Pa., for instance, state GOP Chairman Alan Novak told residents of central Pennsylvania “to be on the lookout for a flip-flopping presidential candidate from Massachusetts.”

It’s a political technique known as bracketing. Both parties do it, but the Bush-Cheney team has far more resources at its command — more than $185 million raised for the campaign and the power of incumbency. Recent Democratic fund-raising has started to narrow the gap; but the Republicans still hold a big dollar advantage.

Prominent Republicans are dispatched to appear before and after appearances by the Massachusetts senator. The GOP circulates talking points. Conference calls are arranged with members of Congress and local officials on the day of Kerry’s visit. Campaign ads are unveiled. Senior administration and campaign officials suddenly become available for local media interviews. Cabinet members drop in for visits.

“It’s critical that we set the record straight before, during and after Senator Kerry visits a state,” said Jennifer Millerwise, who oversees the Bush-Cheney campaign’s outreach to local and regional media.

The campaign has divided the nation into five regions and has a spokesman for each region in its bustling Arlington, Va., headquarters.

Financial advantage conceded
Mark Kornblau, Millerwise’s counterpart in the Kerry campaign, concedes that the Bush campaign has a financial advantage.

“But we have great support networks all around the country of local elected officials who have led in their communities. They’ll go out and talk about differences between John Kerry and George Bush on a particular issue,” Kornblau said. “These are mainly labor intensive things, where hopefully we have an advantage.”

For instance, he said, when Bush went to Appleton, Wis., recently to speak about the economy, local Democratic officials — including Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton — were on hand to talk about job losses under Bush’s watch. Some 1.8 million jobs have evaporated in the last three years.

“Appleton, coincidentally, is the home of Harry Houdini,” Lawton told reporters covering Bush’s speech. “We’re wondering where the jobs disappeared to.”

Former Clinton administration officials are also pressed into service.

Still, the Kerry campaign’s efforts pale alongside the Bush campaign juggernaut, say veteran political observers.

“The Bush campaign is as good as it gets in this regard,” said Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who worked in several Republican administrations.

When Bush campaign officials learned Kerry was to give a speech in hotly contested West Virginia — a state with a high proportion of military veterans — they turned out an ad within 24 hours questioning Kerry’s support for U.S. troops. Volunteers also were dispatched to distribute pro-Bush material.

The Bush campaign gave West Virginia reporters the first preview of the TV ad — on the day of Kerry’s visit — and began running it in West Virginia.

The next day, the ad aired in 17 other states and on national cable networks.

“We had two days where Kerry had to deal with our message instead of his own,” said campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish.

In the week before Kerry’s speech on the economy in Cincinnati, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Treasury Secretary John Snow all visited Ohio in their “official” capacities.

Perks for Ohio
Ridge announced a grant in Cleveland, Thompson held a town-hall meeting on diabetes in Cincinnati, and Snow visited workers in the same city, declaring “the economy’s stronger.”

Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist and longtime Bush watcher, said the Bush campaign’s tactics began as an attempt to neutralize “Kerry’s use of the daily headlines to frame his attacks on the president.”

“They are recognizing that they’re in a fight, and using rapid response technology,” Buchanan said.

Campaign officials actively reach out to local and regional media.

When they spotted remarks by Kerry on oil in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the comments were quickly passed to Bush surrogates in Louisiana and Arkansas, both oil states.

“That black stuff is hurting us,” Kerry was quoted as saying, noting links between the burning of fossil fuels and global warning and respiratory diseases.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a leader of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Arkansas, issued a news release accusing Kerry of being “anti-job, anti-oil.” Local media picked up the remarks.

“Here’s the governor of Arkansas talking about how Kerry’s one statement on oil will hurt south Arkansas,” said Ark Monroe III of Little Rock, Ark., a former state insurance commissioner and friend of Bill Clinton. “Now, that’s effective. It does energize the base and say this guy really can’t be trusted. That to me is how thorough they are.”

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