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Wake-up call
Fight back! Talk about science! And did we say fight back? Five ideas for John Kerry to get back into the race.

FOR JOHN KERRY’S presidential campaign, last week’s Republican National Convention capped off a month of frustration over the Democratic candidate’s post-Boston drift. From almost the moment the FleetCenter balloons failed to drop on cue, the Democrats have been partying like it’s 1988. Unlike Michael Dukakis, Kerry, with his war-hero background, probably would look fairly impressive sitting in a tank. But Kerry’s weird inability to swat away the discredited swift-boat attack ads and the GOP’s success in defining him as a tax-hiking, military-slashing, terrorist-coddling liberal have left his supporters anxious, if not quite ready to panic.

Kerry and George W. Bush had been within a couple of points of each other since March, when Kerry wrapped up the nomination. But as the Republican convention drew to a close, both Time and Newsweek released the results of polls that showed Bush had opened up an 11-point lead, a far bigger bounce than Kerry had received in Boston. Beneath a front-page headline that read WORRIED, DEMOCRATS URGE KERRY TO TURN UP INTENSITY OF CAMPAIGN, the New York Times reported on Sunday that "governors, senators, fund-raisers and veteran strategists" were urging the Kerry campaign to scale back its emphasis on national security and instead confront Bush on domestic issues. Dukakis’s 1988 campaign manager, Susan Estrich, wrote in her syndicated column last week that her "Democratic friends" were "mad as hell" and "worried, having watched as another August smear campaign, full of lies and half-truths, takes its toll in the polls."

By late last week, Kerry the fighter was slowly lurching back to life. At midnight last Thursday, barely an hour after Bush had finished his convention speech, Kerry addressed supporters in Springfield, Ohio, blasting Bush and Dick Cheney for questioning his fitness to lead. Kerry’s performance received mixed reviews, but he did manage to piss all over Bush’s big night: flipping around the morning news shows on Friday, it seemed that Kerry got nearly as much face time as the president. It was an overdue display of political chutzpah. By the time the long holiday weekend was over, Newsweek was reporting that Kerry was angry with his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, for persuading him to take the high road when the lying Swifties began telling their tall tales last month. Word came, too, that the campaign was loading up on slash-and-burn artists from elections past: James Carville and Paul Begala from Bill Clinton’s campaigns, and John Sasso from Dukakis’s. Even Clinton himself was reported to have offered advice and counsel for 90 minutes on the eve of his coronary-bypass surgery.

"It’s certainly not a campaign in turmoil," says a Democrat familiar with the thinking of the Kerry campaign who asked not to be identified. Nevertheless, the source told me on the eve of Bush’s address, "It certainly was not a good month. Absolutely. You’ve got to get back to talking about real issues. Once the [Republican] convention is over, we’ll get back to a debate that people will really pay attention to. I think it is clearly to Kerry’s advantage that he’ll be talking about the issues that are on voters’ minds — jobs and health care, primarily, and education — and continue to offer a detailed and focused critique of Iraq policy."

For sure, though Election Day is just seven and a half weeks away, it would be ridiculous to write Kerry off. You have only to go back to last November, December, and early January, when the polls showed he had fallen far behind not just Howard Dean but also, briefly, Al Sharpton. (Al Sharpton!) As we all know, Kerry staged one of the great political comebacks in American history. He has a well-earned reputation for closing strongly. (He also has a well-earned reputation for sleepwalking through his campaigns until the final weeks.) He did it with Dean in 2003-’04, with then-governor Bill Weld in their 1996 Senate race, and with then-congressman Jim Shannon in 1984 in the campaign to succeed Senator Paul Tsongas, who was retiring because of illness. No, Kerry’s never run for president before. But Bush has never run against Kerry, either.

By early this week, there were indications that the double-digit lead Bush opened up right after his convention was as real as the phony particulars in Zell Miller’s red-faced rant. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released on Tuesday, the race among registered voters was back to being razor close, with Bush up over Kerry by a margin of 49 percent to 48 percent. And though the news was not quite as good for Kerry in terms of "likely" voters, among whom Bush continues to hold a seven-point lead, this race is obviously a long way from over. With that in mind, we present five ideas — some fresh, some pretty obvious — that might help Kerry make up the difference in the final countdown to November 2.

Fight back — hard. Michael Dukakis couldn’t be reached in time for this article. But former Democratic political consultant Michael Goldman, who worked on Dukakis’s campaign, remembers it well. The "independent" ad starring Willie Horton, a prison inmate who failed to return from a weekend furlough, fled to Maryland, and was arrested after terrorizing a couple in that state. (Sort of like the swift-boat ads, only true, though it exaggerated Horton’s past crimes and played on racial fears.) The lies that Dukakis was suffering from depression, and that his wife, Kitty, had once refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Dukakis’s own misguided decision to attend to gubernatorial business in August, allowing George H.W. Bush to overcome what had been a double-digit poll deficit.

"You must be relentless. You must be seething every moment of the day with indignation. That’s the only way you can beat the Bushes," says Goldman, who’s now a talk-show host for Bloomberg Radio. Goldman’s advice to Kerry: go after Bush for following in Richard Nixon’s footsteps in trying to discredit Kerry’s Vietnam service, and on issues such as Bush’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq, his tax cuts for the wealthy, his uniformly anti-choice judicial nominees, health care, and other domestic concerns. Nor, Goldman says, should Kerry — or, more suitably, a surrogate — shy away from attacking Bush for not coming clean on his missing months of service in the Texas Air National Guard.

"Every day you have to get up like a rabid dog. You have to understand that the other side is like a rabid dog," says Goldman. "You have to understand that the press isn’t going to do your job."

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Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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