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NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Bush could be accused of conduct unincumbent

KEY WEST, Fla. -- For those who don't live in so-called battleground states, the voice is surprising: ''I'm George W. Bush, and I approved this message." What follows on the screen is less surprising: an ominous listing of John F. Kerry's Senate votes, suggesting he opposed everything from the Sherman tank to McGruff the crime-fighting dog.

Floridians, like Ohioans, Pennsylvanians, and others, see scores of these commercials every week, along with increasing numbers of ads from the Kerry campaign and liberal ''527" groups, so named for the provision in the tax code that allows them.

But while most of Kerry's ads so far have been upbeat biographical spots -- leaving the dirty work of softening up Bush to the ''527" groups -- Bush's campaign was at work earlier and longer in trying to define Kerry as a weak-on-defense liberal.

This shock-and-awe of the airwaves hasn't seriously damaged Kerry, though Republicans can reasonably argue that the horse race polls would be worse for them without the ads. But viewers might just as well wonder whether Bush has come on too strong, too fast: His campaign is already on orange alert with five months to go before the election.

The Bush strategy seems simple: Use the Republicans' fund-raising advantage to portray Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal just the way George H. W. Bush portrayed Michael Dukakis as an out-of-touch, card-carrying left-winger in 1988.

But so far, this campaign has played out as Bush-Dukakis the way Dukakis must have envisioned it unfolding: Bush has seemed a little shrill and insistent, while Kerry travels the country making presidential-type addresses. He's currently on an 11-day tour discussing national security.

That's not to say that anyone, even the most diehard Democrats, thinks that Kerry is cruising to victory. The state-by-state numbers are only moderately encouraging, and the possibility of an event that could tip the election in Bush's favor -- a major terrorist attack, the capture of Osama bin Laden -- will be present every day until Nov. 3.

But the continued closeness of the election only makes Bush's attack-dog tactics seem more out of proportion for an incumbent seeking reelection. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton seized the initiative in their reelection runs by portraying their administrations in gauzy, upbeat themes, conveyed in 30-second spots that played like Viagra ads.

This year, if anyone's running a stately, incumbent-style walk-through, it's Kerry. And if the poll numbers continue to decline for Bush, expect a further role reversal. It could be only a matter of weeks before Bush starts invoking the spirit of Harry S. Truman, the patron saint of embattled incumbents, whose toughness and feistiness (they didn't call it negative campaigning then) helped him overcome his unpopular policies.

The Democrats' secret weapon this year has been their unity of purpose. Not only has the party avoided internal squabbles, it has tacitly accepted the idea that it must run two complementary campaigns without ever acknowledging the differences between them.

The first is the campaign against Bush, which got off to a jump-start with former Vermont governor Howard Dean's fiery rhetoric, took off on the Internet and in TV spots by groups like MoveOn.org and now continues apace with different Bush antagonists taking the lead every week: hundreds of thousands of women marching against Bush's judicial nominees one week, an apoplectic address by Al Gore another week, a provocative description of Iraq as ''Bush's Vietnam" by Edward M. Kennedy another week, and so on.

The second campaign is Kerry's effort to establish himself as a serious president-in-waiting. With former Clinton administration economic and foreign-policy advisers charting a moderate course -- and even matching Bush's hawkish policies in the Mideast -- Kerry has staked a claim to the political middle without losing many Democrats on the left.

Ralph Nader's third-party campaign remains a threat, however, as do some policy successes for Bush. The economy, which voters say is their top concern, is far from weak, and Bush has yet to receive much credit for it. If the Iraq news were to quiet down, voters might notice that their incomes have been rising steadily while their federal tax bill has gone down.

For now, though, Kerry can enjoy the luxury of running a 19th-century campaign, offering policy pronouncements from his rhetorical front porch while others stoke the outrage against Bush.

It's not a small advantage. With each serious speech and sober pronouncement, Kerry looks more like a man preparing for a new administration in January.

And with each intemperate attack ad, Bush looks like a man expecting a different administration in January, too.

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