KETCHUM, Idaho -- When John F. Kerry cursed about a Secret Service agent who had collided with him Thursday on a snowboarding run, Republican strategists rejoiced: The senator might be on vacation, but he was not taking a break from making gaffes they could use to embarrass him.
Only two weeks ago Kerry was basking in mostly favorable press coverage as he coasted along the glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination. President Bush was under fire for using images from Sept. 11, 2001, in new campaign ads. Yet by the time Kerry flew to Idaho Wednesday, he had inflicted more bruises on his own candidacy than his Democratic rivals had during the months-long primary season. Republicans demanded that he back up his statements that overseas government leaders wanted him to beat Bush, and they immediately turned into a TV spot a comment in which Kerry said he supported $87 billion for US troops in Iraq, when he actually voted against that funding.
Bush campaign officials expressed confidence in recent days that they are successfully sullying Kerry's image and defining him in voters' minds as a flip-flopper who says whatever he thinks voters want to hear. Republican operatives even circulated to reporters and party members news of Kerry's jab at his Secret Service escort -- which Kerry aides say the senator made in jest. "It's perfect material showing that Kerry will say anything, and can't control what he says," one Republican strategist said.
The Bush team is set for a spring barrage of TV ads and speeches -- before many people tune out over the summer -- featuring the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other Republicans, as they aim to drive down Kerry's poll numbers, which have been falling in some recent surveys but have held solid in others. Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, in a memo to Republicans last week, contended that fewer Americans are viewing Kerry favorably, particularly in the wake of incendiary remarks like Kerry's jab March 10 calling his Republican critics a "crooked" and "lying group."
"John Kerry has run a relentlessly negative campaign, but it wasn't until he made the `liars and crooks' comment that everyone's attention focused on how negative these comments were," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign.
While he is skiing and snowboarding in Ketchum, an enclave of the rich and famous, Kerry is also regrouping and preparing to return to the campaign trail Thursday with renewed determination. He will seek to insulate himself against Republican attacks by laying out a rosier alternative for the country's future -- and by offering a steady stream of attacks of his own over Bush's handling of national security and the economy.
"All we have to do in this race is tell the truth, while the Republicans have to cover up their falsehoods," said Kerry spokesman David Wade, who is traveling with the senator here. "When we get back out there, the real question will be, what are George Bush and Karl Rove going to do when we hold them accountable for what they've done in the last four years? How are they going to explain 3 million lost jobs?"
With speeches and events planned for the end of this week in Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., Kerry is about to enter a crucial juncture of the campaign: introducing himself as the Democrats' new standard-bearer to millions of voters who sat out the Democratic primaries this winter. Several political analysts say he needs to show much greater discipline on the stump, and should use the vacation to focus on his successes and stumbles of the last few months.
"The Kerry campaign has had the worst week in four months, but he hasn't made the kind of brutal mistake or soundbite that lives on forever and can really damage him," said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University who specializes in political campaigning. "He's got to avoid playing into the Republican hands when he makes these Kerryesque statements in which he takes both sides, like on the $87 billion for the troops."
Berkovitz is among some political analysts who think Kerry's vacation came at just the right time, allowing the senator to get some rest and perspective from the cut-and-thrust of the campaign. (He is slated to call the annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast in Boston today.) Others, including campaign aides, have worried that Kerry was leaving the battlefield even as Republicans continued their offensive, but his campaign has kept up its pace of attack-by-press-release and dispatching surrogates to assail Bush.
Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said Kerry needed to emerge from his vacation rested and with a sharpened focus on his political message to avoid "the potholes" that have tripped him up lately, and also to reach beyond core Democratic blocs.
"He needs to go back on the offense and go back at the Republicans with the same amount of energy and force that he showed during the primary race," Brazile said. "What's happened lately, it's what I call growing pains."
The campaign is also shifting gear to narrow the fund-raising gap of tens of millions of dollars with Bush. Lower-level members of Kerry's paid staff are being let go until summer, as officials husband slim resources and focus squarely on fund-raising. The campaign has raised more than $20 million this year online, and, aided by former President Clinton and other party luminaries, is seeking to raise $10 million in just 10 days -- a goal it is on pace to meet by Thursday.
As they pivot from a primary-season endeavor to a general-election campaign, Kerry and his advisers are also trying to portray the senator as "a fighter who will not back down" -- as campaign spokespeople have repeated for weeks -- but also avoid exhausting voters with incessant offensives or leaving Kerry in a defensive crouch on a permanent basis. One Democratic operative said he believed Kerry's consuming focus on Bush can be a distraction, noting how Kerry waited two days before expressing concern about remarks by Spain's incoming prime minister about possibly pulling that nation's troops out of Iraq.
"That was a perfect opportunity for John Kerry to exert leadership and urge Spain to think about how the job in Iraq is our shared job against terrorism," said the operative, who supports Kerry and spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was an occassion to speak more forthrightly, but they're still in slash-Bush mode."
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, said that while Democratic primary voters respond enthusiastically to Kerry's toughness -- such as the wild applause at rallies when Kerry offers his trademark taunt to Bush of "bring it on!" -- the senator will nevertheless need to "tone it down" to appeal to swing voters.
But campaign spokesman Wade said Kerry did not plan to change his rhetoric.
"We just need to make sure that Americans know who John Kerry is, and that's what the next eight months will be about," Wade said. Kerry, who has spent his vacation displaying winter athleticism -- as when he embarked on a two-hour mountain hike Friday through sometimes waist-deep snow -- tends to make his most lacerating, off-the-cuff remarks on the campaign trail when he is overtired. That is one reason, campaign aides say, that they have kept his schedule relatively open in Idaho, rather than pack it with policy briefings and meetings off the slopes.
"He'll go off script when he's tired and show the side of himself that's not appealing to Americans -- he's somewhat arrogant, he likes to throw around a lot of Washington-speak, and he'll flip back and forth on issues depending on which way the wind is blowing," said Rob Gray, who was communications director for former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld in his 1996 Senate race against Kerry.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, an influential Democratic think tank, said now that Kerry has shown he will use tough language to castigate his Republican attackers, he needs "to begin to articulate his positive alternatives" to inspire voters to rally behind his ideas.
"These contests can be about mutually assured destruction, with the loser being whoever has higher negatives on Election Day," Marshall said.
Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.