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The money game shifts Kerry's way
by Tom Oliphant
The Boston Globe
July 6, 2004

WASHINGTON 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.

As 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.

For 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.

For 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.

One 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.

Partly 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.

Now it is Kerry's turn and Kerry's month.

In 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.

He 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.

The 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 acceptance speech.

All 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.

For 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.

I 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 campaign begins.

Posted: July 13, 2004


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