A week's worth of bad news for Bush foes

Democratic candidate John Kerry speaking on health care during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa Thursday.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com

While arguments over the authenticity of purported Vietnam-era memos consumed the presidential race Friday, new poll results held little but bad news for Sen. John Kerry.

The memo battle was the culmination of a week’s worth of disappointment for adversaries of President Bush: Forensics experts say that documents CBS News used in a story contending Bush disobeyed an order from his Air National Guard commander in 1972 are suspicious and may be fakes.

Democrats had hoped the documents would damage Bush's re-election hopes.

On Thursday, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of Kerry's outspoken supporters, had said, "The documentation shows that the president was not being truthful. The president lied to the American people in the Oval Office."

But as the National Guard document furor raged, Kerry confronted a welter of discouraging poll numbers in states from Ohio to Arizona.

Even in heavily Democratic New Jersey, which Al Gore carried in 2000 by more than 500,000 votes, Kerry's lead over Bush had slipped from 20 points to a mere four, a new Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers Poll found. Given the poll’s margin of error, Bush and Kerry are statistically tied in New Jersey, just as a Gallup poll this week found they are tied in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Polls are simply snapshots of a few days of respondents’ thinking, but Kerry cannot win the election if he loses New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which together supply 36 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Where to compete
Economists use the term “sunk costs” to describe outlays that have been made and can’t be recovered.

At some point in every presidential campaign, strategists must confront the issue of sunk costs for states that once appeared competitive, but now are starting to seem beyond reach.

In most of the dozen or so states that experts have considered toss-ups, neither Bush nor Kerry has yet reached the point of withdrawing money and advertising.

But Kerry and his staff may be at the juncture at which they must decide that the six days he has spent campaigning in Missouri since June 1 are sunk costs, not likely to be recovered.

A Gallup poll released Wednesday night showed Bush with a 14-point lead among likely voters in Missouri, 55 percent to 41 percent over Kerry. 

Writing off Missouri and its 11 electoral votes would shrink the map for Kerry and expand it for Bush, allowing the president to spend more time in states that Gore won in 2000: Oregon, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. The poll data may even encourage Bush to take the battle to New Jersey.

Kerry's Ohio decision
In Ohio, Kerry may soon face perhaps an even more difficult choice than he does in Missouri: The Gallup poll released Wednesday night showed Kerry behind Bush by nine percentage points among likely voters there, winning 52 percent, while Kerry got 43 percent and Ralph Nader 2 percent.

Since June 1, Kerry has spent 12 days campaigning in the state. Kerry and his Democratic allies ran a heavy television advertising barrage in the state in the month of August: Six of their 10 most heavily saturated media markets in the country were in Ohio, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

If he cannot pry Ohio’s 20 electoral votes away from Bush, who won the state by 165,000 votes in 2000, then the electoral math becomes extraordinarily difficult for Kerry.

To get the numbers to add up to the 270 he needs, Kerry would have to win all the states Gore won in 2000, then he’d have to add Nevada, with five electoral votes, and New Hampshire, with four, and then just one more state.

But what is that one more state, if not Ohio?

Perhaps Florida.

If not Florida, then Arizona? In an Arizona Republic poll released Thursday, Bush leads Kerry, by 54 percent to 38 percent, among 600 likely voters.

(As with the Gallup polls cited above, the Arizona poll’s margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points.)

The Kerry campaign does not plan to run any TV ads in Arizona this month.

The Democrats signaled Friday that they are not about to give up on Colorado and Missouri. The Associated Press reported that television viewers in both states will see a modest amount of Democratic National Committee ads over four days starting Sunday. The party is spending about $350,000 in Missouri and about $230,000 in Colorado.

Seeking answers as to why Kerry is lagging behind Bush, some Democrats have turned to polling data; others, such as former Rep. Tony Coelho of California have cited errors Kerry’s advisers made in trying to explain his position on Iraq.

Public views on Iraq
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released late Thursday showed that 53 percent of respondents said they trusted Bush to do a better job of handling the situation in Iraq, while 37 percent trusted Kerry on Iraq — this despite the fact that U.S. casualties surpassed 1,000 during one of the days on which the poll was conducted.

Fifty-seven percent of the respondents said they trusted Bush to do a better job combating terrorism, compared to 35 percent who trusted Kerry to do a better job.

Kerry’s poll numbers underscore the importance of the debates between him and Bush. So far the Bush campaign has not agreed to the three dates announced by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Both Bush’s and Kerry’s weaknesses will be on display. For Bush, the moment he’ll need to avoid is the one that he displayed in his April 13 press conference when he halted and seemed stymied by the question of what mistakes he had made since Sept. 11, 2001.

For Kerry, the problem is answering that very first question of the debate and doing it crisply, memorably in one minute, thirty seconds. Kerry’s rhetorical tendency is to ramble, adding qualifiers and subordinate clauses along the way.

Change in Democrats' views
Every presidential campaign has its ebbs and flows, and Democrats have gone through cycles of hope and despair over Kerry’s prospects. Two weeks from today, they may be feeling as ebullient as they felt at the Democratic convention in Boston.

In April, Democratic activists were agonizing over what they saw as Kerry’s failure to clearly tell voters why they should elect him. Then in late May, in the wake of Abu Ghraib prison abuse furor, Democrats pressed their attack on Bush and seemed confident Kerry would win.

But Kerry was unable to capitalize on the momentum generated by Abu Ghraib. Perhaps it was due to lack of focus on the issue of Bush’s competence to conduct the war in Iraq and the war on terrorists. Kerry’s own unforced errors — such as saying he would have voted for using force against Iraq even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction there — almost certainly have played a role in his sagging poll numbers.

Kerry’s Democratic allies view him as someone who is categorically superior to Bush in preparation, intellectual ability and knowledge of the world.

Richard Holbrooke, who served as ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, said in May that Kerry “will be the most knowledgeable president coming into office in a long time.”

Kerry has “lived overseas, has been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 18 years, (and) knows the international community,” Holbrooke said.

Rep. Jane Harman, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, portrayed Kerry as more thoughtful and better read than Bush.

“You have to read books, you have to know world leaders, you have to think about these issues — not just delegate to others who do that,” she said in May.

In a comment Thursday, Teresa Heinz Kerry seemed to reflect Democratic frustration that Kerry’s ideas are not yet winning acceptance. Touting her husband’s health insurance proposal she said, “Only an idiot wouldn't like this. Of course, there are idiots."

Idiots or not, a good number of likely voters have not yet seen Kerry as his wife and his admirers portray him: an unquestionably superior president.

Only 36 percent of the respondents in the Washington Post/ABC News poll said they had a favorable impression of him, compared to 54 percent who viewed him favorably in March.