The 2004 Presidential contest has had the feel of a ping-pong match. Invariably, a topic of the week surfaces, with President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry volleying back and forth on issues from Iraq to the economy to the environment. They swat at each other's positions, but Bush's whacks always seem to land on the same theme: Kerry is a waffler who's always trying to be on both sides of any issue.
That's why the Kerry campaign's decision to spend $25 million to broadcast biographical ads about the senator is a good idea — if a little late. The Democratic Presidential hopeful and his team have finally realized it's not just issues that decide elections. It's also how voters feel about a candidate. They want a person who inspires them. They want someone who shares their values. And they want someone who stands up for their principles.
A biographical ad is the best way to communicate those ideas. By definition, it provides a context in which voters can evaluate someone, showing how his experiences define him.
Kerry's new ads will have a deja vu feel for some who have been following the campaign closely. If you live in Iowa, you've already heard Kerry's Vietnam crewmates vouch for his valor. But the 60-second TV spots — which will be featured in 19 states starting May 4 — go beyond Kerry's war record. They also showcase his stint as a Boston-area prosecutor and his vote for President Bill Clinton's 1994 budget proposal, which set the stage for putting the U.S. budget into surplus for the first time since the 1950s.
Kerry, who has been tagged as a humorless loner by the Bushies, also declares "we're a country of optimists." It's not hard to see what the campaign is doing: Kerry wants to dispel the negative images created by Bush's ads, which have saturated key swing states such as Missouri and Florida for months.
No question, the anti-Kerry ads have hurt the senator and helped stabilize Bush's standing in the polls despite one of the worst months of his Presidency. The April death toll for American soldiers in Iraq was the highest since the U.S. took over the country last year, and the Bush Administration has come under harsh questioning by the independent commission investigating September 11.
Can Kerry come back with his own image-polishing campaign? It still might work, even as slow as he has been to get it started. After all, the more information voters have on a candidate, the harder it is to have just a negative impression. Bush's $50 million onslaught began in March — almost unheard of by modern campaign standards and so early that the Democrat still has time to burnish his own image.
Bush's strategy of defining the opponent before he defines himself isn't exactly new. Four years ago, the President took advantage of his ample war chest to tar former Vice-President Al Gore as the guy who would do and say anything to get elected. After wrapping up the nomination in the spring of 2000, Gore had all of $9 million left to spend. It was barely enough cash to keep the lights on at his headquarters — never mind to mount much of a TV ad blitz
Kerry doesn't have those kinds of money problems. Democratic rage at Bush helped generate $80 million for Kerry in the month of March alone — an amazing fund-raising coup.
Now, Kerry faces a very similar situation that Gore confronted four years ago. Bush's ads are raising questions in voter's minds about whether his Democratic rival has any principles at all. By telling his life story, with testimonials from his wife, daughter, and the soldiers he served with, Kerry is implicitly striking back at the Republicans' characterization.
So far, the senator's ads have been almost exclusively issue-based. What would he do on Iraq differently from Bush? What about creating jobs? Nothing wrong with that. But remember, four years ago, Gore won strong support on almost all of the issues. The American people — sometimes by wide margins — agreed with his economic plan and commitment to invest in early-childhood education and his support of abortion rights. But Gore lost the electoral college because he didn't present himself as a steadfast leader. Most people never warmed to him.
Kerry has an opportunity to make sure that doesn't happen to him. By telling his personal story six months before voters go to the polls, he can still present himself as a compelling, optimistic public servant who stands up for what he believes.
A 60-second bio spot won't solve all of Kerry's problems. But it may be his last best shot at countering the Republican argument against his candidacy. The only question now is whether Kerry has waited too long to introduce himself to the voters, particularly since someone else has been doing just that for over two months.