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Debate leads to shifts in strategy

Following the first debate, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry plans to shift the focus to President Bush's economic record, while the president looks to revive his attack on Kerry's foreign policy credentials.
President Bush, right, and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., shake hands before the start of their debate in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A newly energized battle for the White House heads into a crucial two-week period with John F. Kerry planning to capitalize on the momentum from a strong debate performance by shifting the focus to President Bush's economic record, while the president revives his attack on Kerry's foreign policy credentials, according to officials with both campaigns.

Thursday's debate produced a dramatic psychological shift in the presidential race, but strategists said it is less clear how much impact the 90-minute encounter would have on a lead that Bush has enjoyed since his convention in New York a month ago.

Yesterday found the candidates in the nation's two most important battlegrounds, with Bush campaigning in Ohio and Kerry rallying supporters in Florida. Bush hammered Kerry as someone who would turn over decisions about the use of U.S. military power to other countries, and Kerry said middle-class Americans cannot afford another four years of a Bush administration.

Bush advisers were described as stunned by how negative the reviews were of the president's performance, which many of them regarded as not his best but not so bad. Bush was portrayed as upbeat while acknowledging to supporters that he knew he could have done better. His aides indicated they plan some retooling before Friday's debate, but they maintained a sense of outward confidence.

Advisers to both candidates predicted that the race would tighten when the debates end on Oct. 13, if not before, but Bush strategists say that will have less to do with the debates than on a natural tightening as the election nears. The first poll since Thursday night to measure the debate's impact, taken by Newsweek, showed Kerry leading Bush 49 percent to 46 percent — a reversal from a series of polls over the past month.

On Tuesday, Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards will meet in Cleveland for a 90-minute debate — a session some Republicans believe may have more relevance as a result of what happened in Florida. On Friday, Bush and Kerry will attend a town hall meeting with voters in St. Louis. The final presidential debate will take place in Tempe, Ariz., on Oct. 13.

A new set of challenges
Democratic and GOP strategists said both candidates face new challenges as a result of the first debate.

For Bush, the immediate objective is to wipe away impressions of that debate, in which he appeared annoyed and irritated by Kerry's criticism. But just as significant may be how well he passes the test of explaining why he believes his policies in Iraq are working at a time when conditions on the ground suggest that the insurgency is stronger than ever. The longer the focus is on Bush's record, these strategists said, the more trouble he may have.

Republicans said Bush must avoid debating Kerry on the details of micromanaging foreign policy and return to statements of principle with which most voters agree, from the threat of Saddam Hussein to the need to stay in Iraq. And, said one GOP strategist, Bush needs to keep reminding voters about Sept. 11, 2001, and the impact of the terrorist attacks on the country.

For Kerry, the test will be to translate a positive debate performance into sustained and consistent performance on the campaign trail, continuing to undo the damage Bush has inflicted on him as someone who lacks core convictions or clear positions, particularly on Iraq. The first debate may have helped, but even Democrats say that it was not enough to solve the problem. Beyond that, Democrats said, he must tie together his critiques of Bush's foreign and domestic records more effectively than he has so far.

Strategy shifts for both candidates
The aftermath of the debate produced a strategic change for the Kerry campaign, which had used the two weeks before it to launch an argument about Bush's record in Iraq that was designed to take the pressure off Kerry's often-contradictory statements on the subject. Heading toward the final two debates that will dwell on domestic policy, Kerry advisers said they will use a big advertising buy to help put the focus on Bush's economic record.

Kerry strategist Tad Devine said voters want to know that the president can deal with Iraq and domestic needs at the same time and that Kerry would offer that assurance. "This represents a very aggressive move to the domestic agenda," Devine told reporters yesterday as he described a 15-state, $7.7 million ad buy.

Bush's team indicated they plan to stick to the strategy that has guided their campaign by redoubling efforts to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper. "While Senator Kerry was very articulate, I don't think he cleared up what voters believed to be a central flaw in his candidacy, which is that in response to very serious threats, his response is very often to vacillate with the politics of the moment," Bush's campaign manager Ken Mehlman said.

Bush has seized on a statement the Massachusetts Democrat made in the debate that U.S. decisions to launch military action needed to meet a "global test" of acceptability among major allies, and the campaign launched a new TV ad on the same theme. Kerry immediately responded with an ad describing the charge as a willful distortion of Kerry's position.

Publicly, the Bush campaign team maintained a sense of confidence about the outcome of the election and argued that, despite Kerry's attractive appearance, Thursday's debate had provided openings they will exploit. They also said they believe any Kerry gains from the debate will prove to be transitory.

"I remember the swoon everybody was in at the time of their convention and immediately afterward, and it turned out to be missed opportunity for him and a great opportunity for us," White House senior adviser Karl Rove said yesterday.

Other Republicans were privately less optimistic about the race, fearing that Kerry's debate performance could erase much of the impact of months of Bush-Cheney ads portraying the Democratic nominee as a flip-flopper. They said they were surprised by Bush's lackluster performance, even granting that the president is not the most skilled of debaters.

Asked whether he worried that Bush was on the defensive over his record in Iraq, one GOP strategist said: "I'm far less worried about that than that we had [Kerry] firmly pinned down as a wishy-washy flip-flopper and that's now not nearly as pinned down as I wish it were." The strategist, who declined to be identified to speak freely about the president's campaign, indicated that the debates offer Bush the opportunity to drive home that argument decisively and that in the Coral Gables debate he failed to do so.

Kerry advisers and Democratic strategists said the debate provided them with much-needed momentum and marked a potential turning point that would take Kerry off the defensive and shift the focus onto Bush in an effort to capitalize on what polls show is continuing public disapproval of his policies in Iraq and at home.

"The Kerry campaign and the Democrats are very realistic in knowing they did not win the election Thursday night," strategist Anita Dunn said. "The Republicans were the only ones who thought they could win the election Thursday night."

Other Democratic strategists said the debate guarantees that Kerry will get a fresh look from some voters, but they noted that more work remains if he hopes to make the gains permanent. "I think he has opened people's eyes and ears to him, and in the next debates he still needs to take advantage of the opportunity," Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said. "But the opportunity is very, very real at this point."

Democrats said the sequence of debates may work to Kerry's advantage, since foreign policy and national security have been Bush's perceived strengths, and the Kerry campaign's new ad strategy underscores their confidence. But Bush advisers said they are prepared to go toe-to-toe with Kerry on those issues, saying Bush can win the debate over taxes and regulatory issues and can hold down Kerry's advantage on health care. "We feel comfortable debating on either turf," a Bush adviser said.

The ‘global test’ issue
The real battle may still come over foreign policy, with Kerry advisers confident that the senator's performance in the debate demonstrated not only deep knowledge of foreign policy but the strength of someone voters would trust to be commander in chief.

Bush advisers, however, remain equally confident that voters already have come to the conclusion that, whatever their fears are about Iraq, they have more confidence in Bush as the one to lead the country in a war on terrorism.

"It's going to be more of a substantive slog, and there Kerry gave us some openings," Rove said. "This global test thing was very big. This was shorthand for all the questions people have about the guy."

Beyond the "global test" issue, another Bush adviser said they will challenge Kerry for suggesting that he has a workable plan to stabilize Iraq and get U.S. troops home. "The notion that Kerry is hanging his hopes on this plan opens up a whole new avenue of discussion," the adviser said. "What is Kerry's plan? What are the specifics? What nations does he think will join a colossal mistake? In the end, I don't think this is going to help Kerry at all."

Bush's campaign is banking on the fact that rarely has a single debate turned around an election, and they express confidence that, in a highly polarized electorate, many judgments about the candidates have been locked away. Kerry's team sees the debates as pivotal in regaining ground lost in the past two months, and the team believes Iraq and the domestic environment provide them with the ammunition to win the election.