Kerry's Toughest Crowd

His challenge: Shaping a clear message that can win over a diverse group of holdouts

Long ago, a Democratic Party known for internal knife fights perfected the art of the modern political convention -- a seamless, stressless extravaganza that beams a message of Main Street centrism to TV viewers across the land. John Kerry's July 26-29 pageant in Boston was no exception, as speaker after speaker -- from a sweatless Al Gore to a dialed-back Ted Kennedy -- praised Kerry's mainstream values while avoiding red-meat rants against President George W. Bush.

But the Kerry show of harmony was more than an homage to a proven script. It also reflects the challenges ahead for the Democratic ticket of Kerry and John Edwards. With a nation evenly divided and the two party bases unified as never before, both Kerry and Bush have found it difficult to gain an enduring advantage. Although some convention-week polls showed Kerry up slightly, and some said Bush has regained his footing, neither candidate is anywhere close to breaking away. For Kerry, the stand-off is particularly frustrating given the string of bad news the President has faced over the past two months. Prior to his July 29 convention appearance, Kerry had not managed to capitalize on the Administration's agonies in Iraq and on an economy that appears to be sizzling statistically but still leaves many workers feeling left behind.


Every successful convention provides at least a temporary uptick for its star. But with a stunning 84% of voters already certain of whom they will back, Kerry has to expand his beachhead with fence-sitting voters to turn his bounce into a lasting shift. This slice of the electorate -- ranging from 4% to 10% of likely voters -- yearns for change but isn't sold on Kerry.

Who are these people? They are independents who, by 62% to 32%, say Bush doesn't deserve to be reelected, according to a July 19-21 Gallup Poll. They are upscale suburbanites who are turned off by Bush's ties to the Religious Right. They are also alienated blue-collar workers who feel left out of the GOP "ownership society." Finally, they are the turned-off young voters who worry about their job prospects. But the common thread running through these disparate groups is a deep dissatisfaction with the Iraq war. Just 34% of swing voters approve of Bush's handling of foreign policy, according to a July 7-18 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

To say these voters are conflicted is putting it mildly. Michael Woyach, 55, a family therapist in the Milwaukee suburbs, says he's upset over Iraq and Bush's "total disregard for reaching out and collaborating with other nations." But Kerry gives him shivers because "he flip-flops... And I'm concerned that he would be soft in the war on terrorism." He'll vote for whoever can "define an exit strategy from Iraq... and say what he's going to do to make the country more secure." Adds Michelle Starling, a 34-year-old administrative assistant in Arvada, Colo.: "I don't feel Bush has lived up to his promises. The country is not better economically, and there is more rancor. [But] I haven't heard Kerry give any reason why I should vote for him."


With independents leaning his way, Kerry needs to reel in folks like Starling. Much will depend on his ability to give voters a clear sense of his positions on key issues, a task that he has so far struggled to accomplish. The Democrat sees a strong convention as just the beginning of a three-month drive to win the hearts and votes of the uncommitted.

Storming out of Boston, Kerry and Edwards plan a two-week blitz of electoral battlegrounds. Because the unified Democratic base is emphasizing pragmatism over ideological purity, Kerry has plenty of leeway to stress issues that will lure independents. In the stretch, he will focus on white-collar job security, health care, energy independence, and a return to a traditional foreign policy built around a beefed-up military and global alliances. While some of these items won't ring bells with liberal activists, Kerry senior strategist Tad Devine says: "We think this cluster of issues will be powerful with swing voters."

The challenge for Kerry is shaping a message that takes into account the diversity of the undecideds. Many blue-collar independents, while embracing Kerry's tax-the-rich plans, identify with the GOP on traditional family values. And many upscale suburbanites who agree with Kerry's tolerant social views worry that his economic policies could hurt growth.

What's more, swing voters in different states have radically different priorities. In Ohio, where the economy tops the list of concerns and terrorism runs far behind, Kerry is ahead, according to Gallup. But in Florida, where independents are far more focused on terrorism, Bush clings to a narrow lead. "It's hard to figure out one message they can target to swing voters," says Gallup's Frank Newport.

Any exploration of what's riling swing voters is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Grace Gillaspy, 55, a Johnson & Johnson (JNJ ) consultant from the Philadelphia suburbs, is a lifelong Republican who now leans Democratic because she's upset over Bush's "right-wing social agenda." But she frets about Kerrynomics. "Kerry is far too liberal. I'm not for raising taxes on upper-income people. I hope to be upper-income some day."

The combination of a backlash against Bush's Iraq policy and middle-class economic stress is opening a wedge between the President and many undecided voters. "I feel victimized," says Cuban-American Rolando Valdes, 51, a marketing manager for a freight-forwarder in Miami. "Bush's policies are hurting the middle class because of his war for oil." Although he voted for Bush in 2000, he'd jump to Kerry if it wasn't for worries about the Democrat's tax plan and character. "I don't trust Kerry," he says. "He's parroting anything to get elected." To win Valdes over, Kerry will have to make a convincing case that he won't increase the size of government or raise his taxes.

But that won't work for everyone. To draw in other agonized voters, Kerry will insist that Bush's 2000 pitch for "compassionate conservatism" was bait-and-switch marketing. This charge "goes to the heart of swing voters' concerns," says conservative strategist Frank I. Luntz. "Democrats know exactly whom they're targeting this year."


If he hopes to win in November, Bush must halt this erosion in the middle. Step One is a "guns of August" media blitz that will blanket contested states with ads questioning Kerry's character and what GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie calls the Democrat's "extreme makeover" in Boston. Step Two is the rollout of a new agenda that hints at a second-term vision. Among the elements: expanded health-care access built around tax credits and private insurance; renewed talk about private Social Security investment accounts; a push for improved schools; and, possibly, pro-investment tax cuts billed as tax reform.

Bush will have gobs of money to trumpet his plan -- with plenty left over to pulverize Kerry over values. As of June 30, his campaign had more than $60 million in cash to spend through the end of the GOP convention on Sept. 2. Then he is slated to receive $75 million in public funds for the general election.

Because federal law prohibits candidates who accept taxpayer subsidies from spending private money after their convention, Bush has an extra month to bash Kerry. To save his public money for the fall showdown, the Democrat won't advertise in an August stretch dominated by the Olympics and the GOP convention. "We are going dark," says campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. "We know this is a risky move."


Some of that risk will be shaved by aggressive anti-Bush ads funded by the Democratic National Committee and liberal "527" committees fueled by unlimited soft-money contributions. Key 527 field general Harold M. Ickes, chief of staff of America Coming Together, says that because Kerry "has not made the sale yet," the outside groups are targeting swing voters. They're also launching a huge get-out-the-vote effort among core Democrats. But the bifurcated approach is tricky, Ickes admits, because "we're dealing with a polyglot group with different agendas and different aspirations for Kerry."

The battle between the Bush campaign and Kerry's allies is likely to be harsh. "August is going to be nuclear war," says Democratic strategist Stanley B. Greenberg. That may not be good for either of the attackers: Swing voters are often alienated by negative campaigning. "Slowly but surely, these voters are saying 'I've had enough of it,"' says Dick Bennett, president of independent pollster American Research Group.

In their hearts, Kerry's liberal backers know what they want him to do: pull the U.S. out of Iraq rather than recruit 40,000 new troops; spend big on "human capital" programs rather than trying to trim the deficit; and be bolder in the bid to roll back Bush's tax cuts. But such is the hunger for sending Bush back to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., that the Democrats' normal ideological battle over priorities was completely absent from the Boston convention.

The upshot: Kerry has been given extraordinary leeway to shape his campaign message toward a sliver of undecided voters who share many values with the reigning Republicans. As long as Kerry captures the White House on Nov. 2, Democratic partisans don't care how he pulls it off. The party's new slogan: "We'll fight tomorrow."

By Richard S. Dunham and Lee Walczak, with Paula Dwyer in Boston, and Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago, Dave Lindorff in Philadelphia, and Brian Grow in Atlanta

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