- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

More than a year ago, White House pollster Matthew Dowd told President Bush there would be days when he would trail a Democratic nominee in his second-term bid.

How could Mr. Dowd predict this so far ahead? Simple: The history of presidential races is replete with such early leads that vanished, reappeared and then melted in the home stretch.

Walter Mondale was tied with Ronald Reagan about this time in 1984 and was ahead of Mr. Reagan after the Democrats’ Convention that summer. Michael Dukakis had moments when he, too, held a substantial lead over Mr. Bush’s father in 1988.

Mr. Dowd and independent pollster John Zogby have said this election will be no different. He expects Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry will fall behind one another a few times before November.

“There are very different rules this year,” Mr. Zogby says. “There is not enough of a middle [made up by undecideds] so you are talking about late swings. Barring anything unforeseen, you are going to see Kerry up by 6 points, then Bush up by 6 points, over the entire year.”

Mr. Zogby said he only has about 5 percent to 7 percent undecideds, when he normally has about 15 percent to 20 percent during this point in the campaign season.

A big reason for Mr. Bush’s early weakness in the polls is that his advisers underestimated the impact of a concentrated Democratic primary offensive whose nonstop attacks — promoted by the national news media — eroded the president’s approval ratings. Mr. Bush’s strategists forgot the old political rule that if you do not define your opponent early, he will define you. And that’s what happened in January and February.

For too many weeks Mr. Bush’s campaign was playing defense to Mr. Kerry’s nonstop offense. The Massachusetts liberal fired a volley of charges on the conduct of the Iraq war and the anemic jobs numbers in the economic recovery.

But all that seems to be changing now. With eight months to go in this campaign, Mr. Bush’s campaign is blazing away. In the last week alone, the Bush campaign began an aggressive assault on Mr. Kerry’s long but little-known voting record in which he sought to make deep cuts in America’s intelligence apparatus and defense capabilities.

With polls showing the vast majority of Americans believe terrorism the most critical danger the United States faces from abroad, Mr. Bush lashed out this week at a Kerry bill that called for gutting $1.5 billion from intelligence spending in 1995 — not long after terrorists first bombed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Not a single senator supported Mr. Kerry’s proposal, and it never came up for a vote. But it was one of many bills Mr. Kerry offered during the 1990s to slash intelligence and military spending.

Mr. Kerry, like a lot of leftists at the time, questioned the need for U.S. intelligence. “Now that [the Cold War] struggle is over, why is it that our vast intelligence apparatus continues to grow?” he asked his Senate colleagues in 1997.

His position had nothing to do with saving money, though he argued it did. He was viscerally against the CIA. When he first ran for Congress in 1970, he promised to “almost eliminate CIA activity” if he was elected. He wasn’t.

This week, Mr. Bush saw the opening he had been waiting for and attacked Mr. Kerry with a vengeance, calling the CIA cuts “deeply irresponsible.”

Mr. Kerry “was willing to cut the intelligence services,” Mr. Bush said. “And that is no way to lead a nation in a time of war.”

It isn’t just Mr. Bush and the Republicans who question John Kerry’s judgment on national security. Some of Mr. Kerry’s supporters say he has some explaining to do about his positions on the Iraq war.

One of them is Michael O’Hanlon, a top defense analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution, who admits the Massachusetts senator’s votes to cut the CIA budget “are probably not his strongest.”

As for Mr. Kerry’s frequent charge that Mr. Bush was in a “rush to war” and should have given diplomacy a chance to work, Mr. O’Hanlon told me, “I do think that any Democrat who says the president needed to be more patient should explain when patience should have run out.”

Mr. Kerry’s position on the war, he said, could be characterized as, “I want to be tough on Saddam Hussein but just not yet.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Mr. Kerry’s judgment on how he would lead the country in a time of war.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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