In the past nine days alone, the president proudly unveiled his long-crafted new campaign strategy for the fall election campaign, only to scrap it within days. This is not the smooth-running Bush-Rove White House juggernaut we have gotten to know so well.
On Sunday, Feb. 8, Bush told Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press" he intended to run as a war president. Indeed, following the small but still significant slippage he had experienced in the polls following his State of the Union speech, the very act of subjecting himself to Russert's deceptively friendly and civil but relentless and focused questioning for an entire hour appeared to be an attempt to have major national network platform from which to launch the "war leader" campaign.
But it didn't work out well. Reaction to the president's performance was remarkably negative, especially from longtime major media supporters like commentators George Will and Robert Novak.
Far worse, however, was the reaction of the new Kerry attack machine. The KAM went into full battle mode and pumped out media-juicy statements and attacks, and exposed conflicts and contradictions virtually by the hour.
Most of all, the Kerry team salivated at the chance to dredge up the president's National Guard record in 1972 and 1973. As we have noted before, there appears to have been nothing shameful, disgraceful or secret in what he did then, and certainly not in the hundreds of pages of records that the White House has released at remarkable speed and even with signs of panic over the past week.
But the factual details of the case did not matter, as Kerry, his own master strategist Mary Beth Cahill -- now shaping up as the Democrats' "anti-Rove" -- know full well. Kerry is a multiply decorated Vietnam War hero. Bush never served in the regular armed forces in Vietnam and his National Guard service at the same time, while routine, does not bear comparison with Kerry's.
Yet by trying to define himself as a "war president" right after Kerry had emerged as the Democrats' front-runner and likely standard-bearer, Bush opened the way for the Democrats to own the macho issue on the national stage for the first time in more than three decades.
This week's Newsweek cover in particular was devastating for the GOP and the president. It showed Bush and Kerry, side by side as they were more than 30 years ago when Vietnam was still raging. The inside story was not biased or unfair to the president in any way. It did not have to be.
With U.S. GIs still dying by the week in Iraq in a war that increasingly looks to have been unnecessary, Bush's National Guard record of 30 years ago has become an albatross around his neck. He served in the Guard safely at home. But now he has sent thousands of Guard members to danger and even death because of a war that may not have been necessary. And in Kerry, he now faces a foe all too eager to take advantage of it.
This is not the campaign Bush and Rove planned for and expected. They were openly relishing the prospect of tearing former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to bits in the fall. And against Dean, or Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., for that matter, the concept of presenting Bush as a "war president" made perfect sense.
Up to a couple of months ago, it even seemed to make sense against Kerry. Through last summer and fall, his presidential campaign was sleepwalking. Even if by some fluke he became the Democratic front-runner, there was surely nothing to fear. Here was a Massachusetts senator with a more liberal voting record than fellow Sen. Ted Kennedy and a public speaking style that put people to sleep faster than an overdose of Valium. What happened?
First, Kerry connected with his old Vietnam War "band of brothers" and took off. Second, he brought Cahill, Kennedy's old chief of staff, on board as his campaign director.
Third, to a degree that even the political media has not commented upon yet, even though they take advantage of it by the day, Cahill and her team have emulated James Carville on the 1992 Clinton campaign and set up their own "war room." The Kerry counterblasts against everything the president says and does are coming out fast and furious -- very furious -- and they are penetrating the media mainstream. They even managed to maul him over attending the NASCAR Daytona 500 race in Florida Sunday.
As a result, Bush and Rove are now on the defensive. They have already been driven off their planned main theme of "the war president." Now they have been forced back to "running on the record." But with all those 2.2 million plus job losses since January 2001, that is meat and drink to Kerry. Job creation may indeed soar over the next nine months, but it will have to do so in the most spectacular way to wipe out all those losses, and recovery has especially lagged in the manufacturing/industrial sectors, which means the president has a big and growing problem in the big industrial states where this election will likely be decided.
None of this means the president must lose in November. But for the first time since they emerged on the national scene four years ago, Bush and Rove are truly on the political defensive, forced to respond to an aggressive, efficient, fast-moving enemy team that is suddenly calling the shots.
Their strategic offensive has always been so good the country has never had the chance to see how they play on defense when the heat is on. But it may be we are about to find out.
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