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Bush, Kerry go toe to toe in an electoral slugfest

The presidential race already feels like Round 15 of a prize fight. As President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry  continued to pound away at each other, the scorecards showed a virtual tie, with perhaps a slight edge to Kerry, and both fighters still seeking a knockout blow.
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Why, if it is only the second week in August, does the presidential contest already feel like Round 15 of a heavyweight prize fight or mile 25 of a marathon?

President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry and their various affiliates and allies continued to pound away at each other, remorselessly and perhaps to no avail, this week.

The rivals’ airplanes were wearing out the airport runways in the very same selection of contested states: For Bush, it was Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Iowa.

For Kerry: Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.

(Both men also stopped in California, which should be an easy 1.2 million-surplus win for Kerry, if the last three elections are any guide.)

Most opinion polls indicate that the Bush-Kerry contest is still just about a tie, as it was four weeks ago and two months ago. Kerry has a slight lead in state polls in battlegrounds such as Florida, Michigan and New Hampshire.

Rules are meant to be broken
But few of the usual rules of previous presidential contests provide guidance this year:

Little or no convention “bounce” for Kerry — and even a tiny “negative bounce,” as measured by the Gallup Poll. Little respect or deference being given to an incumbent wartime president, with only two out of five respondents in some polls saying the country is on the right track.

Yet in the face of what some pollsters see as an increasingly unpopular war, the challenger decided this week was the time to declare that he would have voted for the October 2002 congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq — even if he had known then no weapons of mass destruction would be found.

From Kerry’s left flank, Ralph Nader and the Green Party each wondered why the Democratic candidate was saying such things.

“It becomes more difficult every day to know what John Kerry stands for,” Nader said. “Why is he letting George W. Bush off the hook and letting down the widening antiwar movement and like-minded citizens?”

“Sen. Kerry’s remarks suggest that he's as likely as President Bush is to invade countries that don't pose a threat to the United States,” said Pat LaMarche, the Greens’ vice presidential candidate.

But there was not yet evidence of a massive shift of antiwar Democrats from Kerry to Nader or to the Greens.

Sign of desperation?
A Kerry talking-points memo issued this week claimed that Bush was barely keeping his campaign from utter collapse.

“The fact that it has gone back to using 9/11 in its ads is just the latest sign that George Bush has no vision or plan for the future,” the Kerry talking points contended. The Bush campaign is “desperately holding on for dear life, floundering even on issues that it once thought would be signature issues.”

In the ad to which the Kerry memo referred, Bush faced the camera and said, “My most solemn duty is to lead our nation to protect ourselves….  We cannot hesitate, we cannot yield, we must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again.”

Taking an even more aggressive anti-Kerry role in the campaign this week was Vice President Dick Cheney, who on Thursday mocked the Democrat for promising last week to “fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history.”

“A sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans.... The men who beheaded Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson will not be impressed by our sensitivity,” scoffed Cheney in a speech in Dayton, Ohio.