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Polls add to swagger factor

ADVICE FOR the Bush campaign: Don't take those new polls too seriously.

There is a certain cockiness (what do they call that in Texas?) beginning to creep into some corners of the Bush camp as the president's campaign suddenly has the Big Mo (Big Mo as in Momentum, Big Mo as in Missouri). The president was gaining rapidly in August, took a slight lead just before the opening of the Republican National Convention, and is now beginning to pull away from John Kerry in battleground states like Missouri and Ohio.

Even New Jersey, where John Kerry once had a 20-point lead, is witnessing a Bush surge. According to a poll by the Newark Star-Ledger, Kerry's lead is now only 4 points and while Kerry led the president in August on the question of who could best protect the nation against terrorism, Bush now has a nearly 20-point advantage on that issue.

But it's too early to bring back the swagger: Bush's lead nationally is somewhere between 7 and 11 points in most polls, and leads in this range can disappear faster than a six-pack of Sam Adams at a tailgate party. Another setback in Iraq, bad news on the economic front, a misstep in a debate, and it's a jump ball again. This one is a long way from over.

Advice for the Kerry campaign. Take these polls very seriously.

It's true that bigger leads than this one have been lost, and in less time than remains between now and Election Day. But don't count on it. Kerry spokesmen are keen to point out that a postconvention bounce is just that -- a bounce: up and then back down again. But the late start of this year's Republican convention has changed the calculus: Ordinarily a trailing candidate might have three or four months to overcome whatever an opponent gains as a result of convention coverage. But with Republicans dominating the news into the first week of September, Kerry now has just over six weeks to turn things around. And instead of Bush's bouncing ball starting to come back to earth, it's still on the way up.

So what to do?

Once again, Kerry has turned to his chief political adviser, Martha Stewart. When the going gets tough, start rearranging. Move Mary Beth Cahill's chair over a bit, pick out some bright new curtains for Joe Lockhart, fluffy pillows for Bob Shrum, bring in some throws for John Sasso, find a nice easy chair for Michael Whouley, pick up a rug and a couple of lamps for James Carville. There: Campaign Team III. That should fix it.

Just how much good all this rearranging will accomplish is yet to be seen. But in Massachusetts, where nit-picking is a local sport akin to duckpin bowling, Democratic insiders note that some of these folks have a political track record that looks an awful lot like the '62 Mets, whose most notable talent was the ability to lose almost every time they took the field. Others, like Carville, built their reputations by being present for Bill Clinton's victories. But Clinton himself brought such a quick mind, impressive intellect, and outsized personality to the campaign that his managers had a lot more to work with than they'll have with the charismatically challenged and persistently befuddled Kerry. Sharks in the waterRather than energizing the left to step up its efforts on his behalf, Kerry's slide in the polls may have the opposite effect: freeing antiwar, anticapitalist activists to go with their hearts and pull the lever for Ralph Nader. Nader has a chance to be on as many as 44 state ballots, and the most worrisome signs for Kerry in that New Jersey poll were the large undecided vote (13 percent) and the high (5 percent) vote for candidates other than Kerry and Bush, most of them for Nader. The debate trapIn an election this close, both candidates run a high degree of risk when they take the stage for a public debate. Kerry is more than a little in danger of tripping over his own tongue, given his propensity for contradicting himself even in the midst of a sentence. But the president may be a little bit too susceptible to a "look at me" syndrome, like a tennis player who hits a zinger down the line and is so pleased with himself that he may be caught flatfooted, gloating over his own brilliance as the return comes whipping past. If it becomes a contest between the smug and the perplexed, it's hard to know where to place one's bet.

Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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