On the eve of the Boston convention, Kerry aides were buoyant. They appeared utterly convinced that disgusted voters were ready to send the president packing and all their guy had to do was present himself as an acceptable replacement. There was no need for a sales job on either Senator John Kerry's record or agenda. LTJG Kerry would single-handedly assure victory. The mood here in New York is more down to earth and the Republicans' convention plans more ambitious. While the Democrats banked on pervasive loathing of the president, Republicans are betting on his proven leadership.
Bush-campaign aides are more cool calculation than cocky assurance. They note that Kerry has been slipping in the polls and believe they've arrived in New York with a small wind at their back. One top insider has a simple explanation for the recent welcome polls. "President Bush is a good politician, and Kerry's not," he says. He reports firsthand that the president is energized and fully engaged.
When asked how they like their chances in November, party and campaign officials invariably detail the work that remains to be done. There are three aims over the next four days. The president's record has to be highlighted, and his Iraq decision defended; his views and values have to contrasted with John Kerry's; and an agenda for his second term must be outlined. They aren't planning on leaving New York in a markedly more confident mood. They modestly hope the foundation laid this week will build momentum for the campaign's remaining weeks.
Republicans do allow that they have been helped by what they see as puzzling missteps by the Kerry campaign. Some wonder why the candidate himself is helping to keep the Swift-boat veterans' controversy alive. They think Max Cleland's stunt in Crawford left them unscathed and the story front and center. One adviser marvels that the Kerry camp didn't anticipate the attack on his antiwar statements and "deal with them months ago." He candidly adds that if Kerry loses, they will look back and only then appreciate that he couldn't be both a war hero and anti-war.
A month ago, Bush and Kerry were tied on who would be the better commander-in-chief. Bush is now up by eight points. After the Boston convention, Kerry halved Bush's advantage on being a "strong leader." Bush is now back up by 20 points. Tied a month ago on "credibility," Bush is now up by seven.
Confident Democrats placed their bet in Boston, but knocking off a sitting president is an awfully big job for a mere lieutenant.
By Kate O'Beirne
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online