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Campaign Report Card

With less than seven weeks left until the presidential election, Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn asked some top political insiders to grade the Bush and Kerry campaigns' performances so far.

The consensus: the Bush campaign deserves higher marks for staying persistently on-message.

Gary Bauer
Leading social conservative and Republican presidential contender in 2000; now heads conservative group American Values

Bush: B
He's got a very consistent message on taxes, on social issues, and he's gone back and remade the case for Iraq and why it is part of the war on terror. They seem to be staying focused on those messages regardless of what is going on in the rest of the political battle.

Kerry: D
For the opposite reason: He keeps taking these detours on things I don't think have the capacity to make him president. I'm sure it would have been very difficult from a human standpoint to ignore the Swift Veteran ads; nevertheless I think politically he would have been wise to do that.

One of the central reasons for his candidacy is Iraq. I think there is growing confusion among voters about where exactly he stands. He doesn't seem to yet have a coherent worldview in Iraq that would oppose President Bush.

Larry Sabato
Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia

Bush: A
The election is closer than the performance of the two campaigns. I don't give A's very often. They've taken an extremely difficult situation and made Bush very competitive because of the way they've handled the convention.

I've been to 16 conventions and this is easily one of the top two or three. They had a good, solid rationale for each piece and a good, solid rationale for the overall theme of leadership and strength, compassionate conservatism, which I didn't think could be revived. I just didn't think it was possible after four years of the Bush administration. But I'll be damned; they did it with Giuliani and McCain, Pataki and Schwarzenegger. It helped not just to moderate the image of the Bush administration but to drive home relentlessly the combination of messages that can reelect Bush; maybe the only combination that can reelect him.

If he's reelected, he's the first and only president since Harry Truman to be behind in the election year and come back and win. He will be the second Harry Truman. People don't understand the significance of that. It's been tried repeatedly by presidents in trouble, and they've all failed. And, look, he could still fail; it's far from over.

It's not just the message. They have the best mechanics that Republicans have ever put together - people on the ground working, from advance people to door-to-door people. Now I see what Karl Rove has been doing in his little cubicle in the White House for the past four years.

Kerry: C ("and it's a gift")
All year long I've listened to John Kerry say, "I'm not going to be another Michael Dukakis," and part of this campaign has turned out to be another Michael Dukakis. It has been disorganized, full of partisan infighting, based on turf and not electing the candidate; based on turf and money.

The campaign has not served him well. The convention did not serve him well. The whole was less than the sum of its parts. The whole was Vietnam, an open invitation to the disaster of what has occurred. Not just the Swift Boat Vets, but also a sense that most people don't know John Kerry.

I believe John Kerry the candidate and man is a heck of a lot better than the campaign I've see for him.

Donna Brazile
Al Gore's campaign manager during the 2000 presidential election

Bush: A-
They went to the convention with a strong story line and it helped to reposition him. Going into the convention I would have given him a C. I mean, he's always a C student. But coming out of the convention I give him an A-. He made significant gains at the convention because the story line was that he was a strong leader that lead the country on Sept. 11. No one talked about Iraq. No one talked about Osama bin Laden. No one talked about job creation. They stayed on message, and again, they got an A- because the message is disciplined.

Kerry: B-
Kerry's up from a C-; he still has a way to go but he's turning the corner. He's a B- because I think he is in the midst of making a change. You can't make change overnight. Change comes gradually. He's making a change. He has his groove back. Because he hasn't fully turned that corner, the only place is up for John Kerry, rebound with sharper message, sharper focus, there's no question that he'll be a B+ student going into the debates. The B- comes from a confusion of message and a lack of clarity as a challenger.

Elaine Kamarck
A strategist during the Clinton administration who advised Al Gore; now a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government

Bush: B
They have done a pretty good job trying to use their campaign to distract America from their presidency. It's the dog-ate-homework campaign. What they have been using the campaign for is offering an elaborate excuse for the mistakes they've made. They are doing a pretty good job at it. But I give it a 'B' because it's being overrun by the reality.

Kerry: B-
Because they have not done what a challenger has to effectively, which is unmask the incumbent's campaign. Because of August. You have to give them a 'B-' minus because they let August just slide by and allowed the Republican convention to play out this elaborate excuse for the Bush presidency. They didn't call him on it.

An incumbent presidential campaign is always a referendum on the incumbent, and in August they allowed this to be about the challenger, as opposed to keeping the heat on the president.

Norman Ornstein
Director of the Transition to Governing Project at the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the Campaign Finance Reform Working Group

Bush: A-
They had a coherent theme, which really was to put the focus almost entirely on the security issues. They were able to inflate Iraq and 9/11 more successfully than I imagined they could do. They were able to hit Kerry and keep him on the defensive while having the heavy lifting done by others, and having much of the shrill stuff done by people like Zell Miller, where they could keep a hands-off element to the approach.

Kerry: C- ("generous")
A couple of reasons: most significant is you really want to have one, at most two coherent themes that you pursue as a candidate or as a campaign coming out of a convention. If you are not with them, helping to shape that focus adequately, that's a problem. If you are all over the map, as he was all over August and into September, that's a problem. But it's getting much better.

Robert Shapiro
Political scientist at Columbia University

Bush: A-
For following through on the plan to use New York as a venue for the kickoff of the final stages of the campaign, beginning with the Republican convention. The reason the Republicans picked New York as the site of the convention was to basically follow up and follow through on the Bush administration being better than a Kerry administration in dealing with terrorism and national security. And that's even though New York itself is not in play for the Republicans in the election.

Kerry: C
He hasn't been able to challenge the Bush administration sufficiently and offer alternative policies to deal with the war in Iraq and terrorism, and to a lesser extent, the economy and other domestic issues.

Charles Cook
Editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report

Bush: A
It is the best-planned, best-executed, most-focused presidential campaign I've ever seen. The Republican convention really was a masterstroke, Monday to Thursday. Generally speaking, the president has done a pretty good job campaigning – better in some situations than others. He's been very good and the campaign suburb.

[The campaign staff] knows what they need to do, they execute it. They make decisions quickly. They do everything right. If they've made a major mistake at any point in this campaign, I've missed it. I think they've had horrendous circumstances to deal with. It's kind of like watching a world-class poker player with a really crappy hand. But even then, they still beat you more often than not.

Kerry: B
Generally, I think the campaign has some very talented people. I think they were overconfident. I think they went into the Democratic convention overconfident. The Democratic convention was unfocused and overly positive. They didn't react for two to three weeks to deal with and dispose of the Swift Boat Vets, which was a horrendous mistake.

Other than that, I think they are pretty good. But when you are up against a world-class team, pretty good isn't good enough. But we have to wait and see what happens with the new team.

By David Paul Kuhn