Most of America will not see a campaign ad for President Bush or Senator John Kerry this year. That is because most of us do not live in the 17 designated battleground states. I was in Florida a week ago, and Bush ads were all over radio and television. The ads are having an immediate impact. National polls of the Bush—Kerry race show that Bush is now slightly ahead by an average of 2 to 3 points with Nader in the race, and the contest is tied if Nader is not in the race. Three weeks ago, Kerry led every poll by the same or slightly larger margin.
But in the first polls after the 'ad barrage' in some of the battleground states, Bush has picked up ten to twenty points in the same period. Three weeks ago, Kerry had a 15 point lead in New Hampshire, a state Bush won by only 7,000 votes in 2000. This week, Bush was ahead by 6 points in the Granite state. So too, small Kerry leads or ties in Arizona and Nevada (both narrow wins for Bush last time) have turned into double—digit Bush leads.
This suggests that the Kerry verbal gaffe about foreign leaders, his remarkably obtuse comment about the Iraq funding bill ('I voted for it before I voted against it'), and his cursing at a Secret Service agent for making him slip on the Idaho slopes have had some national impact on the race. But the ads themselves are delivering an additional few points in the one—third of the country where the election will be decided.
The risk for Kerry is that if he falls behind by ten points in the states in which Bush won narrowly last time, then the battles in the Fall will be fought in the states that Gore won narrowly last time. The Kerry people were clearly energized by early indications that Bush states from 2000, such as Florida, Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia, seemed to be moving to the Democrats. If Bush gains the upper hand in these states, and Kerry falls behind in states Gore won, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the Democrats will be playing defense to hold their ground before they can start playing offense to gain in the Bush states.
It is remarkable how quickly the relative moods in the two campaigns have changed in a few weeks. Democrats were ebullient in early March with Kerry's quick path to the nomination, with money pouring into his campaign and his 527 support groups, and with Bush on the defensive. Now, Democratic organs such as the New York Times report worries about Kerry needing to regain the offensive.
Also telling is the Democrats' hypocrisy about pushing for campaign finance reform to eliminate large soft money gifts, and then creating 527 groups to continue collecting them. The fact that individual donors to these groups, such as George Soros, were contributing the largest gifts ever for a presidential campaign — $15 million so far — was also embarrassing.
Even the New York Times has found this galling enough to call for the FEC to ban the soft money gifts these new groups are collecting. This explains why the Kerry campaign plans to spend most of the next month raising hard money gifts for his campaign. It is hard to champion your campaign as the party for the people and the folks left behind, when you are collecting 8 figure gifts from international financiers, your candidate owns five multi—million dollar homes around the country, and was educated at a Swiss boarding school, St. Paul's Academy, and Yale. FDR pulled off this rich man's populism, but he had some human warmth, a trait Kerry so far seems to be lacking.
The most worrying thing for the Bush campaign might be a new poll showing that if another major terror attack occurred in America, 29% think they would support the President more after the attack, and 45% would support him less. Given the message Al Qaeda gleaned from the fickleness of Spain's voters last week, the odds on a September or October event in the US have to be pretty high. The 9/11 attacks occurred more than three years before the next Presidential election and the country genuinely rallied around the President, and supported his tough response. Given the current harsh political climate and cultural divide in the country, the poll is probably correct that there will be no general rally around the President should another attack occur.
The emphasis on national security in the Bush campaign has led to their attempt to define Kerry as indecisive, and hence a weak, unreliable leader. The trope that Kerry is an out—of—touch Massachusetts liberal seems to be a secondary theme. Kerry's back flips on issues ('nuanced views' according to the New York Times) are hurting him. This is the residue of the hard—left Dean campaign on Iraq, which forced Kerry to play to angry Democratic base voters while trying to remain Presidential and appealing to centrists. So far the base seems pacified, and accepting (Kerry is viewed as 'electable'), but the centrists and independent voters may be having second thoughts as the relatively blank Kerry picture is filled in by the Bush campaign ads.
In spite of the fact that the last few weeks have been low ones for Democrats, there is a bright note. Their chances for regaining control of the Senate are a bit higher. Two certain—to—be—re—elected Senate Republicans — Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado — have decided to retire. These open—seat races in Republican—friendly states are both tossups. Democrats have quickly landed on their candidates, while Republicans in both states face late divisive primary fights.
Then there is Illinois, where the Democratic primary winner, African—American Barack Obama has already been elevated to sainthood by the New York Times, which gushed so effusively for him in a story on Thursday that it neglected even to name his Republican nominee, Jack Ryan. Obama will become the darling of media elites for the next 8 months and has to be considered a favorite to win the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald.
Throw in the tight race in Alaska, where the nepotism charge is still haunting the Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski (who was appointed to a vacant seat by her father, the Governor), and Democrats have 4 real pick—up opportunities. Republicans start with a thin 51—49 edge, and can be expected to pick up the open seat in Georgia. The GOP has a decent shot at 4 open seats in the South — Florida, South and North Carolina and Louisiana. However, Democrats have united behind their nominee in the two Carolina races, and the Republican nominees in both races will be determined later.
John Thune is also running a competitive race against Tom Daschle in South Dakota. But it is no longer certain that the GOP will pick up seats in the Senate, and there is a small possibility of losing control, if a series of close races go against them, as they did in 2000.
The GOP might have their ace in the hole if Bush should run well in many of the states where there are competitive Senate races: the Carolinas, Louisiana, South Dakota, Alaska, Colorado and Oklahoma. Democrats should get a boost from the top of their ticket in Illinois. The Florida Presidential and Senate races are likely to be close. If John Edwards is picked as Kerry's VP, he might help win a few tight Southern Senate races for the Democrats, even if he does not deliver a single Southern state for the Presidential ticket.
For the GOP, it is time to start worrying about control of the Senate.