John Kerry is having problems crafting a message that connects with the swing voters and parts of his Democratic base that his presidential campaign needs to win in the battleground states, several analysts say.
The momentum that the Massachusetts senator had heading into June appears to have slowed, or has stopped altogether, while polls showed that President Bush has improved his standing with the voters, especially on the economy.
Pollsters who are tracking voters in the battleground states say a big part of Mr. Kerry’s problem is his message, which is often too unfocused or too nuanced to appeal to independent, undecided voters.
“What message? Kerry really hasn’t found a compelling message,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “Nothing of interest is breaking through on his part. Nuance is not going to win it this year. His base is way out ahead of him, and he is going to have to give his base something.”
Nowhere is Mr. Kerry’s message deficit more evident than in Michigan, a heavily Democratic, industrial state with many union voters that Al Gore carried by more than 5 percentage points and is a must-win state for the senator.
“Unemployment is more than 6 percent [in Michigan]. This should be a slam dunk for Kerry,” said a Democratic strategist, but the senator is in a statistical tie there with Mr. Bush.
The problem, say political analysts, is Mr. Kerry’s message, or lack thereof, as well as Mr. Bush’s ability to often partially co-opt him on Democratic bread-and-butter issues, such as health care and education.
“He still does not have the generic message that works. They are trying to marry the issues of foreign policy with the economy,” said Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus.
But the result is an often-unfocused campaign that jumps from issue to issue without fully developing them in the voters’ minds, he said, adding, “He does not win on the economy.”
“Health care and education need to be discussed to get the Democratic-leaning voters that are concerned about education and health care. But those issues are getting diluted by Kerry,” Mr. Sarpolus said.
“Part of it is that Bush has co-opted those issues to some extent, and Kerry and the Democrats have not found a way to take them back,” he said. “A lot of the movement has been among independents and that has been to the undecided column.”
Mr. Sarpolus said a poll earlier this month showed the race for Michigan’s 17 electoral votes is a virtual dead heat, 45 percent for Mr. Kerry and 43 percent for Mr. Bush.
For Mr. Kerry, the month of June has been one missed opportunity after another. He had to put his campaign on hold and delay a series of speeches on the economy during the week of state funeral observances for former President Ronald Reagan — while Mr. Bush was seen smoothing relations with world leaders at the Group of Eight economic conference and delivering the eulogy for Mr. Reagan. Then came former President Bill Clinton’s media-promoted autobiography that captured headlines and, to some degree, drowned out Mr. Kerry’s campaign message.
Some Democrats were further dismayed by Mr. Kerry’s attempts to persuade Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to be his running mate. Mr. McCain, who supports Mr. Bush, turned him down, but the reported offer angered Democrats, who said the senator’s move was an insult to all of the Democrats he was considering for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.
“You have to be concerned about the signal that sent to the other Democratic potential vice-presidential candidates. If that had gone on much longer, it would have been a serious concern, and that was a view shared by a heck of a lot of Democrats,” said a senior aide to the Senate Democratic leadership.
Al Gore’s former campaign manager, Donna Brazile, is still optimistic.
“Kerry remains in a great position with voters on issues ranging from the economy to health care,” she said. “Despite the constant jabs on his record from the opposition, Kerry’s message of a stronger America at home and leading with respect abroad will help galvanize Democrats and independents alike.”