Laura Rauch  /  AP
Democratic nominee John Kerry basks in the crowd's reception at an annual Labor Day picnic in Cleveland on Monday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/7/2004 4:01:35 PM ET 2004-09-07T20:01:35

John Kerry’s presidential campaign is in trouble. George Bush’s project of transforming Iraq is in trouble.

One would think that Bush's trouble would be Kerry's boon, but at this point, not so.

Which trouble, Kerry's or Bush's, looms larger in the eight weeks that remain before voters cast their ballots will likely determine who wins the election.

It would be risky for Kerry to allow the impression to become fixed that this election is a referendum on him, his Senate voting record, and his steadfastness, rather than a referendum on Bush’s conduct of the Iraq operation and the war against terrorists.

At the same time, Bush would likely be hurt if voters were to see more and more evidence that the situation in Iraq is no closer than it was six months ago to the stability that would allow American soldiers to come home.

On Monday, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey of 1,018 Americans showed Bush gaining ground among likely voters, with a 52 percent to 45 percent lead over Kerry.

The survey, conducted after last week's Republican National Convention, had a statistical margin of error of plus or minus three points.

The poll marked the first time Bush has had a lead over Kerry beyond the statistical margin of error since January.

The Gallup survey found that Bush has bulked up his advantage over Kerry on the issue of which man could better handle terrorism, with a 27-point edge. 

Video: Staff shake-up On the question of dealing with Iraq, 54 percent of respondents opted for Bush, while 41 percent favored Kerry.

A boon to Bush's image
And events of recent weeks have bolstered Bush’s image as a decisive leader. In the Gallup survey, 60 percent said that label applies to Bush, while only 32 percent said it fits Kerry.

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What was clear even before Gallup released its data late Monday afternoon was that Democratic politicians and consultants outside the Kerry campaign are worried that their nominee may be letting victory slip through his fingers.

From Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana to former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Democratic leaders went on the record over the Labor Day weekend to urge Kerry to do something to change the course of the race.

The chorus of advice reached a climax on the eve of Labor Day when former president Bill Clinton, about to go under the knife for heart bypass surgery, let it be known that he had advised Kerry in a telephone conversation to drop the topic of his service in Vietnam, which Kerry has made a centerpiece of his campaign since last summer.

According to reports in the New York Times and Washington Post, Clinton urged Kerry to argue the need for more domestic spending and job creation.

Bayh also said that Kerry would be better off shifting the focus away from Vietnam and Iraq to domestic issues: “So much of the (Democratic) convention was focused on national security — if that's where the election is, I don't think he can win."

Emphasis on domestic needs
And last week Kerry did in fact launch a new television ad campaign that stressed a populist, remember-domestic-needs theme.

Kerry continued that domestic-needs-first approach in a statement Monday, charging that Bush’s “go-it-alone Iraq policy has created a quagmire, costing us $200 billion and counting. As a result, George Bush is shortchanging America on everything from education to health care to job creation, making it more difficult to meet our needs here at home.”

Neither Kerry nor Bush has proposed any domestic spending cuts in order to free up money to finance the Iraq operation.

Unlike Bush, Kerry has acknowledged the classic war-time trade-off — guns or butter — but has not yet said he’d cut spending on Iraq in order to spend more on education, health care and job creation at home.

Kerry has long argued that he could enlist Europeans and other governments to chip in troops for the Iraq pacification effort.

And he has proposed increasing taxes on those married couples earning more than about $225,000 a year, a difficult goal to pull off, given that if elected, he would likely face a Republican-controlled House and a Senate with at least 48 or 49 Republicans. Few of the GOP senators would support a tax increase, and any one of them could filibuster such an idea.

If Kerry is going to succeed in shifting the focus to jobs and the economy, will voters recognize the change, if Kerry doesn’t give his pitch a more Dick Gephardt-James Hoffa populist feeling? No one in this campaign cycle has spoken in a more heartfelt way about loss of manufacturing jobs than Gephardt.

Kerry has a long-established Senate voting record as a free trader, voting for NAFTA in 1992, and for the China trade promotion bill in 2000. Kerry seems less suited than Gephardt to be a messenger of economic pessimism, unless he does a mea culpa on his free trade votes.

Will economic data help Kerry?
And the unresolved question is: Will the economic data from now until Nov. 2 help Kerry convince voters that things are not only dismal, but getting worse?

Video: Bush, Kerry on war The national unemployment rate, at 5.4 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stands exactly where it stood when Clinton was re-elected to his second term in November 1996.

Even in Ohio, which Kerry seems to be making the linchpin of his campaign, with repeated visits to the state, unemployment in July, at 5.9 percent, was less than a percentage point worse than it was when Clinton was re-elected.

Over the past year, employment across the nation has risen by 1.7 million. Total employment in August stood at 139.7 million, and the proportion of the population age 16 and over with jobs was at 62.4 percent.

When Clinton won re-election in 1996, the proportion of the population 16 years and over that was employed was 63.3 percent.

For today's home buyers, interest rates are significantly better than when Clinton won re-election. In November 1996, the average rate for a 30-year conventional mortgage was 7.62 percent. Last week, the rate was 5.77 percent.

In addition to his phone consultation with Clinton, Kerry is also adding a group of former Clinton aides to his campaign staff. The Clinton alumni include campaign operative Paul Begala, press spokesman Joe Lockhart, and pollster Stan Greenberg.

Last month, while still outside the Kerry campaign, Greenberg dissected some of the causes of what ailed Kerry and suggested some anti-Iraq war rhetoric that Kerry seems now to have adopted.

Greenberg's analysis of Kerry
Greenberg pointed to one of “the emerging trends in the electorate, with Kerry making gains with college graduates, those earning over $75,000, in large cities and suburbs. That is counterbalanced by slippage or just flat support among the non-college-educated, small towns and rural areas. These voters are more religious but also more populist and nationalist.”

Greenberg identified “a core frustration, shared by so many voters: that Bush’s policies leave us mired in Iraq alone, meaning we fail to pay attention to America’s problems.”

Kerry emphasized in a speech Monday in Canonsburg, Pa., that the way to cut costs in Iraq and have more money available for domestic spending is to bring American soldiers home.

“My goal would be to try to get them home in my first term,” he said. Kerry had said in early August that if elected and if he got cooperation from foreign governments, he would try to withdraw a large number of troops from Iraq within six months of taking office, by July 2005.

In April Kerry said, “We do not have the choice just to pick up and leave — and leave behind a failed state and a new haven for terrorists.”

In his speech last Thursday night, Bush was not specific about when troops could return from Iraq or Afghanistan, saying only that, “We will help new leaders to … get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible. And then our troops will return home with the honor they have earned.”

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