Friday, November 5, 2004

President Bush’s campaign manager yesterday said Sen. John Kerry misgauged the president’s strength, failed to offer a positive agenda and came up short in the voter turnout “ground game.”

“They misunderestimated us,” said Ken Mehlman, intentionally using a malapropism coined by Mr. Bush. “We were obsessed with winning the election.

“Secondly, he was the challenger, yet we were the one that had the agenda to change the country, to improve the country. The fact that they didn’t put forward any kind of a positive agenda was surprising.

“And then third, on the ground effort,” he added, “the fact is: Motivation beats mechanics. We had tremendous motivation and we had mechanics. And what they had was just mechanics.”

Mr. Mehlman offered the postmortem at a luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The discussion occurred shortly after Kerry pollster Stanley Greenberg disputed the president’s self-proclaimed mandate.

“This was not a shift to the right,” Mr. Greenberg said at the National Press Club. “The country was not looking for a conservative president or a conservative regime, though that is what it achieved.”

Mr. Greenberg pointed out that although the president beat Mr. Kerry by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent, the same majority of Americans said in a postelection poll that the country is on the wrong track.

“These voters did not abandon their desire for change when they cast their votes for George Bush on November 2,” Mr. Greenberg said. “These voters still felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction.”

Mr. Mehlman insisted the president’s mandate was beyond question.

“If George Bush, with a 511/2 percent victory, did not win a mandate, then the only Democrat who’s won a mandate since World War II is Lyndon Johnson,” he said. “Then Harry Truman never won a mandate; John F. Kennedy never won a mandate; Jimmy Carter never won a mandate; Bill Clinton never won a mandate.”

Mr. Mehlman shrugged off Mr. Greenberg’s poll findings that 51 percent of the country still feel America is headed in the wrong direction.

“You can torture numbers to find whatever you want,” he said. “But if, at the end of the day, all they’re doing is torturing numbers, looking for an excuse, then I don’t think that’s fundamentally a way, from their perspective, to win elections.”

Surrounded by scores of journalists, Mr. Mehlman also complained about campaign “press coverage, which frankly I think many times was not objective.”

For example, he said, reporters were eager to push the theory that an expected large turnout of young voters would benefit Mr. Kerry. But the press largely ignored signs that evangelical Christians were poised to turn out in even greater numbers.

Mr. Mehlman also faulted the press for hyping the impact of the first presidential debate on Sept. 30, which most observers said Mr. Kerry won.

“There’s been a little bit of overstatement in the media of what happened in that first debate,” he said. “Undecided voters didn’t change. Republicans weren’t dispirited.”

But he acknowledged the debate re-energized Democrats, who had been demoralized by a strong Republican National Convention in late August and early September.

In New York yesterday, former President Bill Clinton said it would be “a mistake for our party to sit around and … whine about this and that or the other thing.”

Mr. Clinton said Mr. Kerry was particularly weak on connecting with voters on moral issues.

“If we let people believe that our party doesn’t believe in faith and family, doesn’t believe in work and freedom, that’s our fault,” he said in a speech to the Urban Land Institute.

He added that Democrats “need a clear national message and they have to do this without one big advantage the Republicans have, which is they won’t have a theological message that basically paints the other guy as evil.”

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