WASHINGTON In John Kerry's world, President Bush is a job-killing, gay-bashing, special interest pawn. To the president, Kerry is a tax-raising, flip-flopping liberal who is soft on terrorism and hard on the U.S. military.
The presumptive Democratic nominee has been airing TV ads for months, bragging about his Vietnam War record and his promises for the country while exploiting Bush's potential vulnerabilities: job losses and ties to special interests.
The Bush campaign has responded with a multimillion-dollar ad blitz that opened with a glowing account of Bush's presidency, including his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The ads are expected to turn negative against Kerry in the next week or two.
''It's down-in-the-gutter nasty on both sides,'' said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. ''We could really see a donnybrook, with all of us rolling around in mud, blood and the beer.''
For eight rollicking months, each candidates' strengths and weaknesses will come into play.
More than 2 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office in January 2001. After the Labor Department released another lackluster employment report Friday, Kerry said Bush's policies ''rip the heart out of our economy.''
Bush implied Saturday that Kerry would raise taxes and harm job creation. ''Raising taxes makes it harder to people to find work,'' he said. This underscores Bush's two-pronged defense: Insist that the economy is rebounding while arguing that Kerry's promise to raise taxes on the wealthy would cost jobs.
Bush's biggest strength may be the memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which convinced many Americans that he was a strong leader. The prospects of another strike may make voters less likely to change commanders in chief.
With fear as a trump card, Bush reminds Americans that Kerry once said terrorism is ''far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering operation.''
Bush said he disagreed, adding, ''It is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers.''
The issue could backfire on Bush if postwar Iraq remains a threat to U.S. troops. His ads have drawn criticism from some relatives of Sept. 11 victims who accuse the president of exploiting the tragedy and stonewalling an investigation into intelligence failures. Bush dismissed the criticism on Saturday, saying he'll continue to speak out about the effects of Sept. 11 on the country and on his presidency.
Kerry hopes to inoculate himself from soft-on-terrorism criticism by reminding voters of his decorated service in Vietnam. Bush's surrogates focus on war protests led by Kerry after he returned from Vietnam and his Senate votes against defense programs.
Bush has been well-liked and trusted, even by some Democrats, since the attacks. His Texas swagger and gentle wit helped him defeat a comparatively stiff Al Gore in 2000.
But while a Gallup poll showed that 56 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the president, Kerry was at 60 percent in the same poll. Bush's favorable rating has fallen from 66 percent in June 2003. Only 44 percent in a recent poll said they trust Bush.
As for Kerry, he is a plodding campaigner who has a hard time projecting warmth. He has loosened up somewhat and could be helped on the campaign trail by a vice presidential nominee who served as a contrast perhaps Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who, unlike Kerry, knows what cheese to order for a messy cheese-steak sandwich.
Bush has raised more than $150 million. Kerry has a few million dollars. The Democratic Party is in better financial shape than usual, but still nowhere near as flush as Republicans. Kerry needs independent groups to help counter Bush's punch, but he can't control what they do.
Conservatives are fighting against gay rights, for gun rights and against abortion rights. Their ally in the White House hopes that cultural issues will touch a chord with blue-collar workers hurt by the economy.
Kerry accuses Bush of igniting a ''culture war'' to change the subject from jobs and health care.
Bush's party controls both chambers, both a blessing and a curse.
Kerry's problem is his 19-year record in the Senate. He sided with Bush on trade, education, civil liberties and Iraq all Bush policies he now criticizes. ''Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue,'' Bush said last week.
Do Americans want a change?
In a poll conducted for The Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs, 60 percent of Amer-icans said the country is on the wrong track a nightmarish number for an incumbent.
Kerry's challenge will be to convince voters that not only is change needed, but that it can come from a Senate veteran no less a creature of Washington than Bush.
The president, meanwhile, has the inherent advantages of incumbency as he tours the country aboard Air Force One to promote policies developed by federal employees.
''This guy isn't going to be easy to beat,'' Duffy said.
Ron Fournier has covered politics since 1993.
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