NEW YORK — War-time president George Bush, statistically tied in the polls with his challenger, heads to the Republican National Convention in New York City this week that will try to give him the momentum to win another term.
During the last war-time election, by the time voters cast their ballots, major American involvement in the Vietnam War had had dragged on for seven brutal years.
Yet Richard Nixon was never in political jeopardy in 1972. The closest that Democrat George McGovern could get in the polls was 16 percentage points behind Nixon.
George Bush will have a far tougher time than Nixon.
In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 50 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that the nation is “on the wrong track.”
The lowest recorded reading for that “wrong track” number in the history of NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling was during the presidency of Bush’s father, in July of 1992, when it hit 71 percent.
At that point in his re-election bid, the senior Bush was 22 points behind Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. It didn’t look like he could recover and he didn’t.
Video: Shaping the message But today the junior Bush is statistically even with his Democratic rival in national polls and battleground state polls.
This is the oddest paradox of this campaign, given the “wrong track” number.
Voters seem dissatisfied with the direction of the country, a majority of poll respondents voice disenchantment with Bush’s Iraq policy, and yet voters are reluctant to embrace Democrat John Kerry.
That paradox offers Bush more than a flicker of hope.
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In recent weeks, the Democratic candidate has been embroiled in controversy over allegations that he lied about his service in Vietnam and what he said about war crimes in 1971.
Some grass-roots Kerry supporters say his criticism of the Vietnam War is, in fact, quite pertinent now because it reminds voters that the pretext for war in 1964 — the supposedly unprovoked attacks on Navy ships on the Gulf of Tonkin — proved just as dubious as the belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed arsenals of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
Democrats see Bush as a president with a Lyndon Johnson-sized credibility gap and Iraq remains Bush’s biggest obstacle to a second term.
In his speech on Thursday night it will be worth watching to see if he can make a plausible case to voters why the term “progress” rather than “quagmire” best describes the current state of affairs in Iraq.
Kerry's Iraq advantage?
But Iraq, which easily could have been Kerry’s strength, isn’t. And this problem is mostly of Kerry’s own making.
Kerry startled Democrats on Aug. 9 when he said that he would have voted for the 2002 congressional authorization to use force against Iraq even if he’d known then that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last week she did not know why Kerry took that position, while left-wing columnist Robert Scheer lamented that the question of whether Kerry would have voted for war even if he knew there were no WMDs “was a sucker pitch, and John Kerry fell for it like a rookie.”
But the Swift Boat tumult gave Kerry an opening to connect Bush’s alleged failures as commander in chief to his lack of combat experience.
"There is only one commander in chief of the United States who sent our troops to Iraq without the body armor they need to survive and his name is George W. Bush, and if he had spent one day on the front line of a war he never would have done it,” Kerry spokesman Tad Devine said.
Last week Bush tied to shift the focus away from Kerry’s 1971 war crimes allegations to his own status as war leader.
“Sen. Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is, who best to lead the country in the war on terror; who can handle the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief; who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces,” Bush told reporters.
Was Saddam's removal worth it?
A decisive segment of the electorate is those voters who have decided the removal of Saddam Hussein was not worth the casualties and the cost, 49 percent of respondents in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Of that group, how many doubt Kerry’s ability to handle the presidency? Overall, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that nearly two-thirds of those questioned had doubts about Kerry’s ability to be commander in chief.
(The survey interviewed 806 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.)
The third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is an opportunity for Bush to remind voters of what made them believe he was a resolute leader.
He has had no stronger moment rhetorically than his speech at Washington’s National Cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001.
“War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder,” he said. “This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”
An incumbent president’s convention speech usually has a triumphal tone; some bragging is customary. But the current circumstances may call for something more somber, akin to his National Cathedral address.
Cheney's gay rights foray
Although Bush will run on his identity as a crusader against terrorism, he and Vice President Dick Cheney are not neglecting other issues in an appeal to wavering voters.
In the wake of Cheney’s pro-gay rights comments last week, the Bush-Cheney Republican Party that gathers in New York this week presents an interesting personality: To its supporters, it appears confident enough to tolerate ideological diversity; to its foes, it is frightened enough of the prospect of defeat to suddenly give prominence to Cheney’s laissez-faire attitude on same-sex marriage.
Video: Questions about Bush “President Bush must be feeling the heat," remarked Cheryl Jacques, president of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, after hearing Cheney’s comments. Her group has endorsed Kerry.
Once he leaves New York City on Thursday, Bush will go directly to Pennsylvania, with its 21 electoral votes, in his hunt for the 270 he needs.
At this point, most of the states that went for Al Gore in 2000 seem likely to fall into Kerry’s column.
If Kerry does win all of the Gore 2000 states, he’ll have 260 electoral votes, 10 short of victory.
Some Gore 2000 states are too close to call:
- Iowa: 7 electoral votes
- Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes
- Minnesota: 10 electoral votes
- New Mexico: 5 electoral votes
Can Bush keep the pressure on in these states, and in Pennsylvania?
If so, Bush can keep Kerry preoccupied and he won’t be able to spend time trying to make inroads in Bush’s 152-electoral vote bastion in the South and the Border States.
Bush states in doubt
On the other side of the ledger, five states that Bush won in 2000, with a total of 61 electoral votes, look doubtful for the president this year. They are: New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Florida, and West Virginia.
Only by Columbus Day will we be able to see how serious a bid Kerry is making for Colorado’s nine electoral votes and for three Southern states, all carried by Bush last time, where Kerry might have a chance:
- Arkansas: 6 electoral votes
- Louisiana: 9 electoral votes
- North Carolina: 15 electoral votes
If Kerry can carry any of those states, he will probably do well nationwide on election night.
Conversely, if on election night, returns show Bush winning Pennsylvania, that will be a strong hint that he’ll win a second term.
Right after Bush finishes his speech Thursday night, pollsters in Pennsylvania, Colorado and other key states will deploy their canvassers to start working the phones.
We’ll know by next week whether in his speech on Thursday night the president nudged some of the teetering states closer to his column.
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