- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

White House strategists are no doubt pleased with themselves. Their late-August convention, timed as a kickoff to the fall campaign rather than the conventional capstone to the primary season, appears to have helped accelerate President Bush’s momentum.

There are still two months to go, of course, and in politics that’s a lifetime. Bush’s loudly proclaimed status as the man best able to keep terrorism at bay could yet be tested — indeed, is quite likely to be tested. Democrats can also be relied upon to stir fears about Social Security, Medicare and the environment.

Moreover, voters will have the certain knowledge that second terms tend to be unfortunate. And they will remember that in the 1990s, America flourished during a period of a divided government — the great economic boom getting under way in earnest after a Republican majority was installed in Congress to make sure Bill Clinton hewed to his New Democratic promises. Many voters may reach instinctively for a similar arrangement.

But the GOP’s convention also made clear the very large handicaps John Kerry and the Democrats will labor under to retake the White House. Republicans reasserted ownership of the bloody shirt, hammering on the theme George Bush offered a steady, steely hand in the fight to bring the September 11, 2001, murderers of more than 2,700 Americans to justice.

And they made a strong case that in his 20 years in Congress, John Kerry was a serial flip-flopper and a left-leaning ideologue.

Mr. Kerry and his handlers are trying to deal with the first problem by playing on fears Mr. Bush has bungled Iraq. Events may prove them right, though Iraq seems to be going a bit better now. But Republicans won’t let voters forget Mr. Kerry has not yet managed to explain his various votes on the issue — in particular his 1991 vote against responding with military force against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. After all, in 1991 the first President Bush met all the conditions Mr. Kerry now uses to justify criticizing the second President Bush. America was backed by all its allies, the United Nations and a significant part of the Arab world. Saddam manifestly threatenied basic U.S. interests in the Middle East. But Mr. Kerry still opposed U.S. action. Go figure, the GOP can reasonably say.

Republicans also will try to sever Mr. Kerry from the party of Bill Clinton. Not incidentally did the Republican Convention send in a Democrat, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, to give the keynote address. It was an old-fashioned, barn-burning jeremiad of the sort that only a Democrat could convincingly deliver.

And Mr. Miller forcefully connected Mr. Kerry to the unfortunate Jimmy Carter, who also seemed to have mixed emotions about U.S. power. “They claimed Carter’s pacifism would lead to peace,” thundered Mr. Miller. “They were wrong.” Then, to even wilder cheers, Mr. Miller linked Mr. Kerry to that iconic liberal, Teddy Kennedy. “No pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often than the two senators from Massachusetts,” he cried. Message: This is not the man to bring back the good old days of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats.

There may be an obvious inconsistency in the Republican attack: is Mr. Kerry an unprincipled flip-flopper, or is he a liberal ideologue? Never mind. Unfortunately for Democrats, the Republicans can go on painting Mr. Kerry as both things, precisely because members of Congress must vote in so many different ways on so many different issues.

Mr. Kerry’s utter lack of any distinguishing legislative agenda of his own — one reason the Democratic Convention harped so insistently on his Vietnam service — makes it possible for Republicans to define him as each day seems to require.

Mr. Bush has his own problems, of course. Democrats have landed some heavy blows on his Iraq venture; the economy, particularly in the industrial Midwest, still isn’t generating enough jobs to put Republicans in a comfort zone; the Patriot Act energizes the civil libertarians (as will last week’s embarrassing government admission that zealous prosecutors withheld evidence in a high-profile Detroit terrorism case).

But where only a few weeks ago the election looked like Mr. Kerry’s to lose, Republicans come out of their convention with the reasonable expectation it is now Mr. Bush’s to lose.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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