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THE ARMCHAIR STRATEGIST | DAN PAYNE

Presidential Kerry hits his stride

DEBATES GOT John Kerry back on feet. Since John Sasso got in his corner, Kerry's moved to right side of war -- against it. Swings at fewer Bush moves. Never lets guard down. Stays on attack. Sometimes, most valuable thing new adviser can do is get candidate to believe in own cause and listen to right people.

Refuse to Lose. At debates, Kerry looked presidential. Hardly flip-flopping liberal Bush has been painting. Not clear if Teflon will last under Bush-Cheney scalding. Debates were metaphor for whole campaign. Kerry refused to lose. Wait! "Refuse to Lose" could be Kerry slogan No. 368!

Bush fires campaign spitballs. In final debate, President Bush sounded like candidate for school committee. Mentioned education in every answer. Several friends were bothered by spittle in corner of Bush's mouth. Not me. Looked good.

Calculated over-reaction. Asked if homosexuality is choice, Kerry said, "We're all God's children. I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was. She's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not a choice."

Vice President and wife swung into hypocritical anger. "You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected," said man who for years refused to say anything about own daughter's sexuality. Lynne Cheney, nationally known right-winger, accused Kerry of "cheap and tawdry political trick." Wonder if the Cheneys upbraided Illinois Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes, who labeled homosexuality "selfish hedonism" and said that Cheney's lesbian daughter is a sinner.

Snap judgments. After debate, CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll showed BIG Kerry winner, 52-39 percent. ABC poll, with more Republicans in sample, had it Kerry 42-41 percent. Fox poll said debate watchers gave it to Kerry BIG (66-15 percent). Four to one in Fox poll!

Bush outfoxed on Osama. Kerry charged, as others have, that Bush said Osama bin Laden was not someone he worried about. Bush denied ever having said it. But hopelessly pro-Bush analysts on Fox News agreed record shows Bush said it not just once but twice. Get some Heinz ketchup, Mr. Bush, you're gonna eat them words for next two weeks.

Electoral math II. If Kerry wins WA, OR, CA, NV, NM, HI, MN, IA, WI, IL, MI, PA, NY, NJ, DE, DC, MD, CT, RI, MA, NH, VT, ME, he'll have 269 electoral votes. Take away WI and give Kerry OH and he scoots to victory with 274. (270 needed.) Give Bush everything else, and he's at 249. With OH, he's at 269. Tie. Tie favors Bush. Election decided by members of new Congress, plus each state delegation, where GOP has 2-1 advantage. Let's just win Ohio, OK?

Joy of uncommitted. If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as uncommitted voter. I want to be oblivious to world around me and get asked again and again what I think. In CBS poll, undecideds gave last debate to Kerry, 39-25 percent. Another 36 percent called it a draw -- obviously still waiting for their free toaster from Bush or Kerry.

New Hampshire upset? In 2000, Granite State went for Bush by 7,211 votes. Its four electoral votes could be crucial again. Despite suffocating barrage of television spots, GOP Governor Craig Benson is tied for lead. Presidential poll now shows Kerry ahead by seven points. Boston consultant Mike Shea has congressional candidate Paul Hodes moving up, thanks to funny TV spot showing GOP congressman Charlie Bass literally in Bush's pocket. Bass's lead fell from 30 points to 13.

Who's got Bush's back? Expert who makes devices for military told Salon.com he thinks bulge under Bush's jacket in debate No. 1 was designed to receive electronic signals and transmit them to hidden earpiece in Bush's ear canal.

"It's a pretty obvious one," said Alex Darbut of Resistance technology. Darbut thinks device provided by Secret Service. But White House says Secret Service has not outfitted Bush with hidden device. Salon.com ran photo of bulge under Bush's well-tailored jacket after Wednesday's debate.

Battle of the bulge. New York Daily News found master tailor who looked at photos of bulge and said, "There's definitely something there, in between the shoulder blades. I can't say what it is, but it's not hidden very well. They should have come to me. I can hide a pistol." New York tailors know their customers.

Now he tells us. Bush's manager, Ken Mehlman, tried to laugh off bulge. "The president is an alien. . . . He's been getting information from Mars." Don't toy with us, Ken.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based Democratic media consultant who has worked in John Kerry's Senate campaigns in the past but is not affiliated with his presidential campaign. He does presidential campaign analysis for NPR. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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