- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign has received relatively little media attention lately because of the focus on the Iraqi prisoner-abuse story, though Democrats say his “under the radar” strategy is working.

“Yes, the story is drowning out Kerry’s message, but it’s drowning out everybody else’s message, too,” said a senior Democratic Party adviser.

While the Massachusetts liberal’s agenda may not be making national news, Democrats say his campaign speeches are getting a lot of play at the local level.

“The senator is out there every day, delivering his message and those kinds of events are making news in the states, particularly in the battleground states. In some respects it is under the radar, but it is having a profound impact in local media markets,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney.

“It may not be the lead story on Tom Brokaw and the nightly news, but it gets wall-to-wall coverage in places like Erie,” Mr. Rooney said. “The senator is still able to reach out with retail politics.”

At the same time, the Kerry campaign has stepped up its TV presence in some 17 battleground states, with two new ads that promote his Vietnam War experiences and biographical background in a move to “reintroduce” himself to voters.

Still, Democrats said last week it is difficult to compete for a share of the national news shows against an incumbent president who can make news whenever he wants. It’s even harder when the country is absorbed in a major national story.

“Does this whole Iraqi story dominate the news? Of course it does. But Kerry is still getting plenty of coverage in the states where he is campaigning,” said Kathleen Sullivan, New Hampshire Democratic chairwoman.

And Democrats stress that it works both ways.

The treatment of some Iraqi prisoners by the American military has put the White House on the defensive, forcing President Bush to apologize to leaders in the Arab world for the embarrassing acts committed by a relatively small number of military personnel.

“Both Kerry and Bush are struggling to get above the day-to-day stories coming out of Iraq,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

“Kerry is still being defined. He has to go out there each and every day and try to break through the daily chatter on Iraq or the echo chamber on [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld,” Miss Brazile said.

“But this story is hurting Bush, too, undermining his strongest characteristics on national security and raising doubts about his leadership and our moral authority,” she said.

Mr. Kerry has been campaigning virtually nonstop in the past month and veteran Democrats say they cannot remember when the party’s presumptive nominee has begun his general campaign so early in a presidential election year.

Meanwhile, recent polls have said the candidates are in a dead heat.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll Wednesday showed Mr. Bush had a 46 percent to 42 percent edge over Mr. Kerry, with a 3 percent margin of error.

A Gallup Poll released Thursday showed the candidates running neck and neck, each with 47 percent, and Mr. Nader with 3 percent. In mid-April, Mr. Bush led his challenger by 50 percent to 44 percent, with 4 percent for Mr. Nader.

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