NOT QUITE a year ago, the top officials of President
Bush's campaign let it be known that their money-raising
goal for an unopposed nomination season would
be the staggering figure of $175 million.
it turns out, they will probably top off their
tanks well in excess of $220 million, and therein
lies a tale as the Democratic Party's campaign
moves into its critical national convention period.
a mere $175 million, Karl Rove et al assumed they
would be coasting to victory, preferably against
Howard Dean, but they didn't care all that much.
Their model was Bill Clinton versus Bob Dole eight
years ago, when a cash-heavy Clinton succeeded
in defining a basically broke Dole negatively
in the long period between the end of competitive
primaries and the conventions.
a good bit more than $220 million, Bush has not
been running off the unexpectedly huge proceeds
of his relentless fund-raisers. Late last winter,
the Bush campaign's leaders realized that they
would have a horse race on their hands -- because
of the president's failure to set a cogent agenda
for the year, the collapse of poorly laid plans
in Iraq, and the slow-starting business recovery
-- and left the money spigot on.
thing did not change. The strategic purpose of
the money was to buy television commercials whose
purpose would be to crush a feeble, cash-poor
Democratic nominee-to-be under an unheard of barrage
of carefully crafted negative messages targeted
at nearly 20 so-called battleground states.
because of events in the real world, partly because
of poor judgment about America's willingness to
pay attention, partly because the commercials
were mediocre, the Bush campaign does not have
much to show for its massive investment. In the
latest CBS-New York Times poll, negative opinions
of Kerry seem to have peaked at about 35 percent,
less than the core Republican vote that can be
counted on this November.
it is Kerry's turn and Kerry's month.
a decision that disappointed those of us lusting
after a white-hot, joined campaign lasting a full
eight months, Kerry kept his political profile
low through most of the spring while his own fund-raisers
exceeded even Dean's famous organizers in tapping
anti-Bush sentiment to haul in a total of $175
million to date -- Bush's original goal.
has spent a big chunk of his money very differently,
however. In another decision that disappointed
those of us in politics for whom name-calling
is plasma, Kerry decided to air TV ads in the
battleground states that did not go beyond introductory
biography and broad summaries of purpose. His
campaign rhetoric has been similarly muted as
he essentially coasted while Bush's self-created
problems festered. In that same poll last week,
positive opinions of Kerry were actually slightly
less than the negatives; the most important finding
was that a huge portion of the public either doesn't
know enough about him or has no clear opinion
yet. In another survey last week for NBC and The
Wall Street Journal, the swing voter share of
its sample was an eye-opening 16 percent.
opportunity offered by center stage is now at
hand for Kerry. Top officials in his campaign
share the view by many academic observers that
many voters are "episodic" -- their attention
comes and goes. What begins this week is one of
those episodes, when potential voters take more
than a casual look at the campaign. It is most
accurately described as the "convention period,"
commencing with the selection by the out-of-office
party's vice presidential candidate and ending
with the last syllable of the presidential nominee's
the understandable and often quickly forgotten
frenzy about who the running mate will be pales
before the message Kerry will emphasize in this
period. According to his strategists, it is not
going to be complicated. Kerry happens to share
the most important values of ordinary American
families trying to live off their paychecks and
pension checks and finding it very hard to do
so in a fragile, uncertain economic environment.
And the specific ideas Kerry has on the most important
issues related to those values show that he cares
about what ordinary Americans care about. It is
called making a connection.
those who follow this game, this ought to sound
familiar. This is what Kerry and John Edwards
did to break away from the pack last January and
dominate the Iowa caucuses, as well as the rest
of the brief campaign. The reason was a feeling
that by background and temperament he was better
prepared to unravel the mess in Iraq and reinvigorate
the struggle with terrorism, which remains the
other element of his strategy.
have no doubt about the strategy, though it might
be nice if his running mate was someone who helps
make that all-important connection. What remains
is Kerry's execution of it, which must be disciplined
and consistent. So far this year, George Bush
and Karl Rove have handed him a golden opportunity
as the first major episode of the general election
Posted: July 13, 2004