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How come John Kerry isn't clobbering this guy?

LATE 1988. "Saturday Night Live" is doing skit on presidential debate. Jon Lovitz plays Mike Dukakis; Dana Carvey is George Bush senior. Bit is, we hear what they're thinking. Bush gives goofy, fractured answer ("thousand points of light . . . not gonna do it"). Exasperated Dukakis rolls his eyes and thinks aloud, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."Worst month of George W. Bush's presidency. Abuse at Abu Ghraib prison disgraces America and forces Bush to do what he never does, apologize. Independent "Army Times" newspaper calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Administration knew about prison torture in January, covered it up. Rumsfeld toasted by Congress, after he kept GOP lawmakers in dark on previous visit -- when he knew prison photos were coming on "60 Minutes." Innocent US civilian, Nicholas Berg, is shown about to be decapitated in image that will not soon fade. Berg's father blames Bush and Rumsfeld for son's death.

Bush job approval ratings fall to lowest of his presidency, 46 percent, (Gallup poll). Only 33 percent are satisfied with direction of country; first time ever, majority (51 percent) say war not going well (Pew poll). Conservative columnist George Will and neoconservative hawk Robert Kagan each blister Bush on Iraq. Prolife Republicans in Congress and Nancy Reagan urge Bush to open up stem cell research. And gasoline prices? Fuggedaboudit.

But John Kerry has only single-digit leads. How come? Champion surfer once explained great ride as "partly the wave, partly the board, partly me." Here's what's keeping Bush afloat.

* Country is at war; Americans back commander-in-chief during war. National news, while all bad, is all about Bush and war. Kerry has to be careful, and he's good at that.

* Ninety percent of country has already decided, leaving race in hands of small group of brain-dead voters who won't "think" about race until October. There is also lag between bad news and bad polls. Polls starting to show decay in support for Bush.

* Kerry message is out of synch. Whole nation is riveted by Iraq and Rumsfeld. So what's Kerry talking about? Health care. On Wednesday Kerry blasts Bush for Iraq and finally says, "Bush does not deserve a second term." Now he's back to health care. I like candidates to stay on message, but this is ridiculous.

* Bush has simple message. Many Americans like Bush because he's easy to understand and "steadfast." ABC's George Stephanopoulos, ex-Clinton aide who got start in Dukakis presidential, said that guns, gays, and God work for Bush in South and in below-the-radar targets in states like Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

"Bush's message is clear," said Carter Eskew, adviser to Al Gore. "He's a steady leader, and Kerry's a flip-flopper." Because of his own statements and Bush's multi-million TV attacks, Kerry is hurting on serious matter of resolve. By 42 percent to 30 percent, public says Kerry "changes his mind too much" (Pew). Is steadfast about one thing: won't pick VP early. May even pass on best campaigner, John Edwards, and pick flawed campaigner, General Wesley Clark.

* Bush team knows its product. Dubya is handled by Texans who created him -- from diaper changer Karen Hughes to dark lord Karl Rove to Democratic turncoat and media packager Mark McKinnon. Bush's TV spots are better than Kerry's. Kerry campaign added Bill Knapp to its ad team; did TV for Michael Bloomberg's winning GOP campaign for New York City mayor and Al Gore's losing campaign for president.

* Kerry is tough sell. He's long-winded and dense, looks sad, generates little excitement, and is allergic to sound bites. Delivers measured criticism while vice president flatly questions Kerry's ability to lead America at time of war.

* National media focused on such vital issues as Kerry's SUVs, wife's taxes, and, on page one of New York Times, aide who makes his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even Boston Globe gives platform to longtime, crackpot, Kerry-hating veterans, one of whom pulled same dirty tricks against Kerry for Richard Nixon 33 years ago.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based media consultant who worked on John Kerry's Senate campaigns and for Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential primaries. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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