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Strategy of attack carries risk in swing states

VIENNA, Ohio -- As far back as March, President Bush raised eyebrows when he began attacking Senator John F. Kerry by name. That was more than four months before Kerry's nomination became official and far earlier than any previous incumbent president had focused directly on a challenger.

Now, Bush is wrapping up his reelection bid as he began it, on the attack. In the race's closing days, Bush's argument for a second term is as much about warning voters of what his Democratic opponent would do as it as about what the president himself is promising.

"My opponent has a different point of view, a different view of your family's budget: To put it bluntly, he intends to take a big chunk out of it," Bush said yesterday at a campaign rally in Vienna, outside Youngstown. "My opponent counsels retreat. He votes against supporting our troops in combat. He downplays the power of democracy and adopts a narrow so-called realism that is little more than defeatism."

But political scientists note that while Bush's campaign strategy might help fire up supporters in regions of the country where he is popular, it might not be having as powerful an effect in all-important battleground states, such as Florida and Ohio.

One reason is that Kerry hasn't always looked like the caricature Bush has described. And real-world events keep intruding on Bush's portrayal of the world, leaving the president open to charges of being out of touch.

"Bush and his team understood early this year that Bush would not be reelected if the election became a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on him," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "They had to do something that never has been done to this extent before, really. They had to make this election a referendum on the challenger. Whether it works, of course, we won't know until Election Day."

Amid troubling poll numbers in some of the nation's biggest swing states, Bush has barely strayed from the strategy put in place by his top political adviser, Karl Rove. Aides have promised a series of "significant" speeches in recent days, but the president's stump speech has been retooled only to make his attacks on Kerry sharper and his defense of his own record stronger.

To hear Bush on the campaign trail, Kerry wants to increase taxes on the middle class to pay for government-run healthcare. Bush says that would lead to rationing of services and would endanger America by deploying troops only with the approval of foreign leaders. Bush has also been seeking the votes of Democrats by portraying Kerry as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal.

The Kerry campaign rejects those assertions, and many of them distort or exaggerate what Kerry himself has said as a candidate.

The strategy of seeking to aggressively portray Kerry as a "flip-flopper" and a "Massachusetts liberal" was hatched before Kerry started racking up primary wins.

"What people knew about Kerry when he won the Democratic primaries was that he fought in Vietnam and beat Howard Dean," said Nicolle Devenish, the Bush campaign's communications director. "It was important to be proactive and to get his record out there."

But in the debates, Kerry didn't fit the mold Bush had carved, and Bush's narrow but consistent polling advantage evaporated. Plus, current events have at times made Bush's optimism ring hollow. Just this week, the administration was forced to confront the mass killing of Iraqi security trainees, a downward tick in consumer confidence, and the revelation that about 380 tons of explosives are missing from an Iraqi military installation.

Polls on issues indicated the president's attacks have had mixed success. On the overriding issues of leadership strength and decisiveness, Bush has kept a consistent advantage over Kerry, according to the Pew Research Center poll.

But many Americans remain doubtful about Bush's decision to invade Iraq, and the president's attempts to take down Kerry over domestic issues do not appear successful. The Pew poll indicated voters still trust the Democratic candidate more on such issues as healthcare and the economy.

Overall, Bush's message appears to be resonating far better in states Bush carried four years ago than in the battlegrounds, political analysts say. Bush is on track to take some of the so-called red states of the South and the West by margins that far exceed the vote split of four years ago, but recent polls have indicated that he is slipping in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"It's an extreme strategy, and they've been very true to it," said Maxine Isaacs, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who was a deputy campaign manager for the 1984 presidential bid by Walter F. Mondale. "They've really inflamed the base, they've gotten everyone stirred up, but they may not be where they need them to be."

The strategy of attacking Kerry could, in fact, result in boosting Republican turnout in states that are safely Republican without helping in the crucial swing states. The same president who in 2000 lost the popular vote but carried the Electoral College could lose the electoral vote in 2004 despite a victory in the popular vote.

"That would be the ultimate irony," Sabato said.

Rick Klein can be reached at

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