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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JOAN VENNOCHI

Competence or ideology?

MAYBE Michael S. Dukakis was simply running against the wrong Bush when he said the presidential election was about "competence, not ideology.'' That battle cry did not work in 1988, but it could win the White House in 2004.

In this final push to Election Day, Kerry's campaign theme is, in essence, a promise to do everything better than Bush, from fighting a war to distributing flu vaccine, from praying to hunting. In other words, the Kerry campaign is about competence, not ideology, although this candidate from Massachusetts would never put it as bluntly as former Governor Dukakis.

Once George H.W. Bush defined Dukakis as a Massachusetts liberal, the race was over for the Democrat. In 2004, George W. Bush is trying to dispose of Kerry in the same fashion. But it isn't as easy this time around. For one thing, the Bush campaign spent a lot of time painting Kerry as a flip-flopper who believes in nothing. Later in the campaign, when Bush tried to hang the liberal label around Kerry, it was a harder sell. Moreover, while voters may fear liberals, they also fear a second Bush term.

This Bush is undercut by his own record; he cannot make the campaign solely about ideology. Instead, the election will turn on whether enough voters in key states conclude the Bush administration is so inept that competence, not ideology, does indeed matter more on Election Day.

In making his case to voters, Kerry is helped by the continuing avalanche of bad news from Iraq and the mixed economic reports. But the seeds of the competency argument first took root for Kerry after Bush's poor performance in the first presidential debate. The president looked and sounded incompetent in the very areas, terrorism and national security, he was supposed to be strongest. For the first time, voters could define the race as a choice between an incompetent, babbling ideologue and a competent, well-spoken opponent. Bush hurt himself more than any Kerry advertisement or campaign soundbite hurt him. He performed better in the final two debates, but the first encounter redefined both candidates, to Kerry's benefit.

What, exactly, will the candidate who is not Bush do more competently as president? It is interesting listening to Kerry voters try to explain his agenda. Some will insist, for example, that of course Kerry plans to bring the troops home and end the war. Obviously, the Democrat has never said that, and his campaign quakes at any effort to describe Kerry as a peacenik. But liberals are so intent on defeating Bush that they listen to Kerry and hear what they want to hear, no matter what he actually says on issues like war, gay marriage, or abortion.

Once liberals let Kerry off the ideological hook, it became more difficult for Bush to make this campaign about ideology. On social issues, Bush has no such luxury. He cannot abandon his right-wing base. He needs them to turn out on Election Day. Kerry's left-wing base presumably will be there for him, no matter how much he took them for granted during this campaign.

But here is the gamble underlying the Kerry campaign: that, on Election Day, centrist voters will yearn more for competence than passion; and more voters are willing to wait to find out what Kerry will actually do as president than are willing to reelect a president whose policies are clear and clearly mistaken.

The passion from the left is still fired by anti-Bush rather than pro-Kerry sentiment and the presumption that anyone is better than Bush.

Bush supporters seem to be fired up for their candidate and against his opponent. Are there enough of them out there to tip the balance his way? Bush is also running against the mainstream media and its pro-Kerry mindset, and there are more than a few Bush votes in that constituency.

In the end, if Bush does not prevail, that first presidential debate will be seen as the tipping point for Kerry. Up until then, the Bush campaign was able to define Kerry in a negative way and convey a positive message about the president. The scripted convention week in New York reinforced the image of a competent, if controversial, presidency. Then, the Bush campaign handed the ball to the candidate and he dropped it.

This Bush made incompetence the issue.

Poor Dukakis. He was 16 years ahead of his time and running against the wrong Bush.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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