Presidential election is up for grabs and both camps could use help

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2004

The advent of summer signals warmer temperatures and a hotter phase of presidential politics, as well. Let's take a moment to consider the Bush-Kerry race.

Polls by InsiderAdvantage and other national pollsters continue to show either Bush and Kerry in nearly a dead heat, or Kerry enjoying a modest lead. This has to frustrate Bush supporters. So based on thousands of polling interviews we've conducted over the past months, I'm going to offer some unsolicited campaign strategy to the Bush camp as it heads into the first critical weeks and months of the election season.

First, don't just dwell on the past. The current Bush TV ad campaign that focuses on optimism is a good one. But these ads need to be followed up with new ones that outline distinct new proposals and policies for the next four years; policies that would measurably impact the everyday lives of everyday people.

For example, why not pre-empt one of the few issues the Democrats seem to have the advantage on: the growing U.S. government deficit? Propose a real cut in government services through the consolidation of two or more federal departments or agencies.

Further, mandate that the combined budgets of the former agencies not exceed the current budget of the bigger of the agencies. That would be real, Republican-inspired streamlining of government.

It would also go far toward convincing Americans that Bush is serious about finding ways to combat current and future deficits. Yes, the president in the 2000 campaign flirted with the idea of greatly reducing the federal Department of Education. But that particular budget has instead grown by leaps and bounds, a fact the Democrats have understandably pointed out. All the more reason for Bush to cut off election criticism by making specific proposals now.

Second, Bush should remind Americans not only of the cause for worldwide democracy, but of the brutality of our enemies. He should keep touting the value and moral rightness of a free Iraq. But he should also remind voters that the same people who have decapitated individual Americans wouldn't think twice about doing the same to every last one of us if they could. And their boundless hatred of us long predated the George W. Bush inauguration.

Third, why not devise a positive reversal of Ronald Reagan's 1980 "misery index," which he used to defeat then-President Jimmy Carter? Instead of an index of misery, the Bush team should create a "recovery index." After all, the nation has now emerged from a recession that started under Bill Clinton. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created in the past months, to go along with sustained low inflation and interest rates.

And we're now seeing an expansion in business productivity.

Most Americans don't know these facts because they're held hostage to news programming that paints a mostly misleading picture of the increasingly robust U.S. economy.

In short, Bush must use his paid advertising to matter-of-factly remind Americans how far we've come since 9-11 and the recession it intensified, and to offer a clear map of what we can expect in the next four years. Vague policy concepts and self-congratulation for past accomplishments aren't going to work.

As for Kerry, his best hope is that news events will continue to keep the American people from coming to know his personality or voting record. While the Kerry campaign may be lamenting the attention now on Bill Clinton for his new memoirs, Democratic insiders who know Kerry are thankful that their dour nominee is able to further delay a true introduction to the average American.

Kerry also mustn't be afraid to add a charismatic vice-presidential candidate to his ticket. Such a man or woman might overshadow Kerry, but that might also dazzle and distract the public while the less prepossessing Kerry sneaks into office.

One more word of caution to the Kerry campaign: Running ads in which their candidate declares great health care to be the right of every citizen may sound good to the Democratic voter base. But it could easily rekindle the fears created by Hillary Clinton in the early 1990s, when the effort she led to improve health care turned into a perceived proposal to establish national health care and socialized medicine. It was that very fear which allowed Newt Gingrich and the Republicans to take control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

No matter what less objective pollsters and pundits say, a presidential race is always the incumbent's to lose. Taking the right measures now could turn what appears to be a dim hope for a Bush re-election into a second inaugural celebration in 2005.

Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.

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