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Will Bush fight Kerry like Tyson or the Terminator?

HOW YOU VIEW the presidential campaign at this point depends on what you think you're watching: A Mike Tyson bout or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Remember the way Tyson, back when he was Iron Mike, the most ferocious fighter of his era, used to charge from his corner and swarm all over his opponent? Some of them never recovered from the initial onslaught. Remember the short work he made of Michael Spinks, who lasted all of one minute and 31 seconds? If you paid $35 to order it on TV, I bet you do.

Then, slowly but surely, Tyson's opponents solved the pugilistic puzzle. Survive the furious initial assault, take Tyson into the long middle rounds, let him punch himself weary, and you could beat him. An unknown named Buster Douglas showed the way - and a well-known boxer named Evander Holyfield used the same basic strategy to tame the most menacing heavyweight since Sonny Liston.

This year, hopeful Democrats think they are watching John Kerry play Holyfield to George W's Mike Tyson. Look at the $70 million pounding the president and his team unleashed on Kerry as soon as the primaries ended; yes, the Democratic nominee lost his immediate post-primary lead over his Republican opponent, but he is still on his feet, relatively unmarked, and landing telling blows of his own, they say.

Having failed to discredit Kerry early, Bush won't be able to put him away in the later rounds, when the Massachusetts senator, who performs best in the clutch, will get stronger. That, anyway, is the Kerry camp's view of the contest, which is why they are optimistic.

But what if Bush isn't Tyson, but rather the Terminator? Remember the way Arnold's most famous movie character kept coming and coming and coming, through bullets, bombs, and blazes? How, even with his cyborgian innards revealed, he pursued poor, terrified Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) to the very end? (Yes, he finally got mashed to mechanical mincemeat by a pulverizing factory press, but, hey, no movie metaphor is perfect.)

That's how the Republicans see their man. The awful news of the last month or so might have spelled curtains for any ordinary contender, they say. But despite the harsh headlines from the 9/11 commission and the gut-wrenching news from Iraq, the incumbent is still in a virtual tie with Kerry.

That just shows that Bush connects with the average American, who respects the president's resolve and determination, they say. And if an economy that has clearly turned the corner continues to improve over the next few months, and the military manages to stabilize the situation in Iraq, the president's latent strengths will re-emerge, Republicans strategists think. He will then be well positioned to bounce back come fall.

So who's right? That, of course, is the $64,000 question.

''You can make a good case for both those views,'' says former White House political director Ron Kaufman.

True enough. Still, I'm inclined to think Kerry is in pretty decent shape in the early going. As he pursues reelection, George W. has taken a play from George H.W.'s 1988 playbook.

A pale, preppy, and not-so-popular vice-presidential heir to Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush was struggling against a buoyant Michael Dukakis in the spring and summer of 1988. The Bush team, realizing the quickest route back into the game was to make Dukakis just as unpopular, embarked on a methodical effort to tarnish the (then) Massachusetts governor's standing. And, with a devastating attack on his values and record, they did. By late summer, Dukakis was in serious trouble.

But the pounding Dukakis took in 1988 is nothing compared to the electronic assault George W. has launched against Kerry. It has had some effect, to be sure. With Kerry leaning into the right jab with a series of wince-inducing pronouncements that have underlined his propensity for equivocation, the Bush camp has made some real inroads in portraying him as the very prototype of an expedient Washington pol.

And yet, though Bush has bounced back to a basic tie, he has not dealt Kerry a crippling blow. Now, having raised $67 million in the last two months, Kerry has a chance to repair the damage by presenting himself in a flattering light with a heavy buy of biographical spots.

Finally, though the Bush camp is right that their man makes a better initial connection with the man in the street, Kerry grows on you as you go along.

Add it up, and, watching the action in early rounds, I'm a tentative Tysonist.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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