CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
If presidential elections are a referendum on the current administration, President Bush is going to fight for his reelection by defining this November's referendum as a vote in the context of war and a poor economy, where decisive leadership is leading the country out of both.
His re-election may depend more on whether voters are more concerned about pre-Sept. 11 issues or post, than on de facto Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam War record or position on universal health care.
"President Bush is defining himself as a war president. It is endemic to everything he says and does and that's the overriding definitional tone," said Mike Frank, a government expert from the Heritage Foundation. "When you are a wartime president you have to make difficult decisions."
The Bush campaign already has Kerry's three-term deep senatorial voting record under a microscope. If the Massachusetts senator emphasizes his heroic service in Vietnam to present himself as the most qualified wartime president, the Bush campaign will search for votes on the military budget that may frame Kerry as weak on defense. If Kerry talks about health care, his voting record will have to support his stance.
"We look forward to a two-person race when we can clearly define the difference between higher taxes and the president's view that we need to keep taxes low to keep the economy moving," said Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. "A choice between the president's current strategy to address threats where they emerge or what's being offered by his opponents, which would be a rollback of that policy."
The policy Stanzel refers to is the doctrine of pre-emption, as the vernacular goes inside the Beltway. In a post-Sept. 11 America, Mr. Bush emphasizes that the United States must strike at terrorists before terrorists strike first.
"Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions?" the president rhetorically said during his Jan. 28 State of the Union address.
The campaign strategy for Mr. Bush is that whether or not Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was a threat that had to be dealt with.
"The question is, is terrorism akin to the Ebola virus, where if you see it somewhere you've got to take every conceivable step to get rid of it," Frank said.
If Americans are more concerned about the economy than the war on terrorism, the president will emphasize his tax cuts, as the aggressive actions of aggressive leadership.
"The fear that is beginning to emerge in conservative circles is that the voters who are frustrated by the unceasing growth of government may stay home and just sit on their hands on election day rather than be energized and vote," Frank continued.
In a country as split as ever among Republicans and Democrats, the election will likely be decided on who turns out their base, rather than on wooing the swing vote.
"The notion that you can take a $280 billion surplus and turn it into a $550 billion deficit in four short years is mismanagement," said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, pointing out that Democrats will use the deficit to describe the president as fiscally irresponsible.
"The main strategy for Bush is he wants people to look at him as a war president. He wants to be the Franklin Roosevelt and obviously going along with that he wants people to think he is getting the economy moving again," Fenn added. "The problem with all this is I think the American public feels at this point that there are serious questions about his management."
Poll numbers show a dead heat in the coming general election, but Republicans are quick to point out that the Democratic primary candidates have railed against the president and the White House will, first and foremost, redefine the four-year legacy of Mr. Bush. The president has followed major primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Missouri with visits to the states, for just this purpose.
"I think what you will see is as the campaign really gets off the ground – and it's still in its infancy – is that two things are going to happen," Republican pollster and strategist Ed Goeas said. "You are going to see the Bush campaign tell their story. It has been sitting on the sidelines as the Democrats have been going through their early primaries.
"And the second is once you have a Democratic nominee, you will see them hold that nominee accountable for his record, his positions and the claims he has been making with no accountability in recent months. And that's where you see a shift in the campaign."