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updated 9/17/2004 10:57:15 AM ET 2004-09-17T14:57:15

John Kerry’s lack of progress in this week’s state polls illustrates the power of distraction.

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The Swift Boat Veterans controversy, two giant hurricanes and the Dan Rather document furor all pushed Kerry into the background at a time when he would otherwise have had a chance to press his indictment of President Bush.

A Gallup poll of likely voters in Wisconsin released Thursday summed up Kerry’s unenviable situation: He is eight points behind Bush in a state that Al Gore carried by a slim margin in 2000 and which Kerry probably must carry this year in order to defeat Bush.

In the Gallup Wisconsin poll, conducted Sept. 9-12, Bush leads Kerry among likely voters, 52 percent to 44 percent with Ralph Nader getting 1 percent of the vote.

Next door in Minnesota, another state Gore narrowly carried in 2000, Gallup found Kerry and Bush in a tie, each with 45 percent of likely voters' support, while Nader drew 5 percent.  A St. Paul Pioneer Press/Minnesota Public Radio poll, conducted Sept. 11 through 14, likewise showed a statistical Bush-Kerry tie.

Conflicting data — and more encouraging news for Democrats — came in a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll published Thursday that showed that Kerry had a nine-point lead over the president among Minnesota voters.

But for Minnesota to be so much in play with only six weeks of full campaigning left indicates how much work Kerry faces in shoring up the Democratic base.

As the CBS documents story entered its second week, it was hard to refute the idea that someone had gone to extraordinary lengths to produce documents — which many forensic experts think are fraudulent — in an attempt to damage Bush's chances of re-election.

Republicans are incensed and now more motivated that ever before to make sure they turn out every voter to re-elect Bush.

Bush adversaries seem to have put their investments in the wrong places, hoping that documents would tarnish Bush's National Guard service and drag him down to defeat.

They got a rude surprise when Rather, not Bush, became the accused.

But were it not for the distraction of the hurricanes and what some are calling “Rathergate,” what message would voters be hearing clearly from Kerry?

Kerry on Imus
This week Kerry told radio interviewer Don Imus that there were no "current circumstances ... none that I see" under which he would have gone to war in Iraq.  This contrasts with what he said on Aug. 9, when he declared that he would have voted for the October 2002 congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq even if he’d known then no weapons of mass destruction would be found.

Kerry has argued that there is a significant difference between enacting the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force and the president’s actual decision to use force. He has said he has no regrets about voting for the Oct. 2002 resolution, but he has said Bush’s decision to use force was wrong.

Meanwhile, the anti-Bush group Moveon.org took to the airwaves in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin this week with a TV ad attacking Bush’s Iraq policy, saying, “George Bush got us into this quagmire. It will take a new president to get us out.”

Kerry’s proposal to “get us out” hinges, as before, on the unproven hope that, if he were president, he could persuade France, Germany and perhaps some Arab countries to send troops to replace U.S. soldiers.

Kerry’s inability to gain ground on Bush — apparent in a dozen polls, both national and state-specific, over the past 10 days — increases the pressure on him to inflict damage on Bush in debates.

This also adds to the incentive for the Bush team to take a hard line in negotiating terms for debates. At this point, Kerry needs the debates more than Bush does. Bush has not yet agreed to any.

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