Sunday, May 23, 2004

Undecided voters are still trying to “figure out” presidential candidate John Kerry’s message, especially on Iraq, which remains unclear and confusing to much of the electorate, according to Democratic state chairmen from key battleground states.

“I think he is going to have to sharpen the message on Iraq. He has to present some clear alternative to what we have now,” said Ron Oliver, chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.

Acknowledging that virtually all the head-to-head polls show the Massachusetts liberal has not benefited much from President Bush’s decline in job-approval surveys, Democrats such as Mr. Oliver say that Mr. Kerry probably will not see any new movement toward his candidacy until he becomes better known and offers voters a more vivid contrast to the president’s policies in Iraq.

“People tend to move to the undecided column first. They want to take a long, hard look at the alternative. So, it’s up to Kerry to close the sale and convince those who have moved from the Bush camp that he is a viable or better alternative,” Mr. Oliver said in a telephone interview. The debate over Iraq “gives him that opportunity to do so.”

Mr. Oliver’s assessment of Mr. Kerry’s campaign reflects growing concern in the party’s councils that, despite the president’s troubles, Mr. Kerry’s approval numbers have barely budged in a race that is generally believed to be a dead heat.

Polls in Arkansas, a state that helped elect Bill Clinton to two terms as president, show that race is a tossup right now, Mr. Oliver said.

Such criticisms also underscored growing concern among Mr. Kerry’s campaign advisers and party officials that his message about the country’s problems in Iraq and the economy has been all pessimism and no optimism about the future.

Mr. Kerry sought to revise that message early last week in a joint appearance in Portland, Ore., with his former rival, Howard Dean, with the more optimistic rallying cry, “Let America be America again.”

The line, taken from a Langston Hughes poem, seeks to present a more can-do optimism about the country, he told the Wall Street Journal. “Talking about ‘Let America be America again’ is tapping into that value system that people think makes this country strong,” he said.

Interviews with other Democratic state chairmen elicited a range of opinions about Mr. Kerry’s campaign, though most party officials say that undecided voters are still adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward the senator until they hear more of what he would do as president.

“Right now, people here are fed up with the war. They’re kind of taking a step back and moving away from Bush and doing an analysis of what Kerry’s position on Iraq is,” said Mike Callaghan, West Virginia Democratic chairman.

“You’ll see that the undecided will join him and be very supportive. Now what they want to do is spend some time and figure out Kerry’s message,” Mr. Callaghan said.

Some Democrats emphasized Mr. Kerry’s tendency to start slowly as a candidate, while others expressed doubts that there would be any significant shift among the voters until the fall.

“Kerry’s in the middle innings right now. People continue to say Kerry is a good closer. I think we are going to see him come on in the late innings,” Florida Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox said.

“Kerry’s not climbing in the polls because of Bush’s negative ads. Santa Claus’ numbers would drop if he had been the recipient of the same number of ads Bush ran against Kerry,” Mr. Maddox said. “They’re throwing the kitchen sink at him.”

Arizona Democratic Chairman Jim Pederson said voters just don’t know Mr. Kerry.

“They haven’t bought into Senator Kerry yet because they don’t know the man and that is going to be the primary challenge for the Kerry campaign in the coming weeks,” he said.

Mr. Pederson added that once voters get to know Mr. Kerry on a personal level, the senator’s numbers should start to climb.

“We may see the head-to-head matchups running fairly close throughout the summer,” he said. “We are telling people don’t get alarmed that Kerry is not opening up a widening gap, despite Bush’s falling polls. We’ve got plenty of time.”

Meantime, Mr. Kerry still has a lot of work to do if he is going to activate black voters, one of his party’s most loyal voting blocs, some state chairmen said.

“They are not that energized yet, but that’s not unusual at this point in the campaign,” Mr. Oliver said.

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