updated 9/1/2004 6:50:12 PM ET 2004-09-01T22:50:12

A tie isn’t good enough for some people. Certainly not for anxious Democrats who watched John Kerry’s tiny lead over President Bush get swept away in a month of controversy and tactical miscues.

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They want the advantage back, even as Bush tries to use his four-day convention spotlight to put some distance between himself and his Democratic rival.

“It’s time they get their acts together,” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said of the Kerry campaign, joining a chorus of Democratic leaders urging their nominee to improve his political team and step up his attack on Bush.

Kerry and his beleaguered staff are being flooded with advice, much of it contradictory. Some party officials want him to criticize the president for sitting out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard. Others say that would draw unwanted attention to allegations about Kerry’s combat experience when the focus should be on the economy and the Iraq war.

Kerry chose option No. 2. Addressing fellow veterans in Tennessee on Tuesday, the Democrat said “extremism has gained momentum” on Bush’s watch and U.S. policy on Iraq has been an utter failure.

In the broad scheme of things, Bush’s advances in opinion polls may be nothing more than a political adjustment — a nudge of the pendulum rather than a big swing. But for some Democrats, the president’s rise came as a shock, in part because Kerry’s team had bragged that Boston had set the stage for victory.

That was their first mistake.

“It’s never a good idea to get people too excited too early,” said Bill Carrick, a leading Democratic strategist from California.

After raising expectations, Kerry listened to campaign consultants advising him to let surrogates respond to accusations that he exaggerated his medal-winning wartime service. They wanted him to remain above the fray, and he did, until the accusations from the group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began tugging him down.

By the time Kerry personally struck back, calling the group a front for Bush spreading “lies about my record,” the damage was done. Polls show Bush is now favored over Kerry on questions of who is more qualified to be commander in chief and which candidate is more honest. Immediately after his convention, Kerry led on both questions.

Bush also has erased Kerry’s lead on who would best deal with the economy, and has opened a gap on whom voters prefer to lead the war against terror.

Some Democrats said it was a mistake for Kerry to say, under pressure from Bush, that he still would have voted to authorize war in Iraq had he known no weapons of mass destruction would be found there. He needs to distinguish himself from Bush on the unpopular war, they said, not align himself.

Kerry tried to set the record straight Tuesday.

“Our differences couldn’t be plainer,” he said. “When it comes to Iraq, it’s not that I would have done one thing differently, I would’ve done almost everything differently.”

Kerry’s anxious allies welcomed the approach. “I’m glad he got the wakeup call,” Emanuel said. “And I’m glad it came in August, not October.”

In a race this close, the smallest shifts in voter preference send partisans atwitter. Just last week, nervous Republicans were urging Bush to unveil a robust second-term agenda to shift voters’ focus from the unpopular war in Iraq. Now, with the convention confetti set to fly, Republicans are temporarily in line while Democrats suffer doubts.

“Bush and his surrogates have been vicious and unforgiving” with the Swift boat claims, said Frank Schreck, a top party fund-raiser from Nevada, “and they have scored a lot of political points.”

Schreck wants Kerry to bluntly compare war records with the president. “Why not stand up there and say, ‘He chose to have his father get him out of harm’s way while I volunteered to risk my life?”’ The Bush campaign vigorously denies the president used his family’s political influence to avoid Vietnam.

Ken Brock, a Democratic consultant in Michigan, said he wants to see Kerry fight back.

“Personally, I’m for somebody coming out and saying while Bush was in the Redneck Riviera, Kerry was picking shrapnel out of his butt,” he said. “There are those who want John Kerry to drop his drawers and show America the scars.”

Carrick said it would be smarter to focus on issues causing Bush problems.

“My sense is the Swift boat stuff has been a major distraction, to say the least, for the campaign, and they need to get back to hammering him (Bush) every day on the economy and health care and the management of the war,” Carrick said.

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