President Bush’s re-election strategists plan to portray the November election as the first since the Reagan era to offer voters a stark choice between liberalism and conservatism.
It also is the first time in years that Republicans appear to be depriving Democrats of their traditional advantage in grass-roots politics.
“Conservatives have for a generation yearned for an election in which there would be a very clear choice on the issues and a strong focus on grass roots,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
“This election will represent a clear choice, an ideological choice on the issues. And this campaign is totally committed to grass roots.
“So if you’re a conservative Republican,” he added, “this campaign is doing what you wanted.”
The ideological differences between Mr. Bush and Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, rated by the nonpartisan National Journal magazine this year as the most liberal member of the Senate, appear more pronounced than in recent presidential contests.
In 2000, for example, Vice President Al Gore was widely portrayed as a centrist Democrat and Mr. Bush was playing up the compassionate side of his “compassionate conservatism.”
In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton positioned himself as a centrist in his contests against President George H.W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Both Republicans were considered less conservative than the current president.
Although Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, was considered a staunch liberal, the elder President Bush was disparaged by even some Republicans as “Reagan Lite.”
The Bush campaign’s effort to play up the ideological differences between the president and the Massachusetts senator comes at a time when the president’s job-approval ratings are at record lows.
Still, Republican strategist David Winston, president of the Winston Group, said the outlook for Mr. Bush is bright.
“The endless doom-and-gloom stories from Iraq have taken a toll in terms of voter confidence,” he said. “But if this is the worst of times for the Bush administration — and some would argue it is — then Kerry’s inability to surge to a strong lead in this ripe environment bodes ill for a November victory.”
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign says it has an ace up its sleeve — a formidable grass-roots organization to get out the vote on Election Day. That represents a dramatic change from the 2000 campaign, when Democrats still enjoyed a historical advantage in getting voters to the polls.
The closeness of the 2000 election prompted the Republican Party to begin an ambitious, nationwide return to shoe-leather politics. The Bush campaign has assembled an army of volunteers that swung into action months before the Kerry campaign.
Democrats acknowledge the Kerry campaign was slow in setting up field offices in key battleground states like Ohio, but they plan to match or surpass the Bush campaign’s grass-roots effort by Election Day.