Last week, our InsiderAdvantage national survey showed President Bush with a slight lead over John Kerry in the race for the White House. The same survey also revealed what may be the most painful Achilles' heel of all for Bush his vice president, Dick Cheney.
We asked 500 likely voters, "Do you prefer for vice president ...?"
John Edwards 48 percent
Dick Cheney 43 percent
Don't know 9 percent
The poll was conducted Aug. 13-14, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Kerry trailed the president by three points, yet his vice-presidential running mate led the incumbent Cheney by five points.
This suggests a troubling gap between the two presidential candidates and their running mates. But what does it mean? It certainly brings up the age-old and unavoidable question: Do vice-presidential candidates matter?
Most pundits say no. I'll argue that the second candidates can make a difference, even if most of them don't. Kerry, especially, could gain an advantage on this issue if his campaign was bold enough to act. Rather than be traditional by reserving Edwards for cameo cheerleading appearances, or occasional attack dog moments, why not play it as the Democrats did in 1996? They used TV to saddle well-liked GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole with unpopular Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Even Dole now says he suffered immense damage by TV ads that depicted an angry, cranky Gingrich as being politically joined at the hip with Dole. It worked. If the Clinton campaign could tie a presidential candidate to a member of Congress, surely Kerry could do the same to Bush with Cheney, his own vice president.
Here's a reason why this tactic could work for Kerry: Among those who describe themselves as moderates in our latest survey, more than 60 percent said they now favor Edwards over Cheney. That's big news, because it's moderates and independents who will decide the race for the White House.
Despite most perceptions, Dick Cheney has long been considered in Washington circles as not only one of his party's brightest minds, but also as a generally nice guy. It's hard to believe, given his usually grim appearance and his obvious reluctance to suffer fools. But it's true. Unfortunately for Cheney, neither his intellect nor his unparalleled or good-guy demeanor could save him from a strong Democratic comparison ad.
So what's holding back the Democrats? In short, it's fear, plus an aversion to buck campaign traditions. They likely are thinking what too many others think, that it doesn't really matter who is No. 2 on the ticket. And they're afraid that attacking Cheney would invite the Republicans to initiate their own attacks on Edwards. Attacks, perhaps, on his career as a trial lawyer, or pointing out his comparative lack of experience in elected office.
True as those hypothetical charges may be, Edwards is outpolling both Bush and Kerry. His sunny face and easy-manner rhetorical skills all but beg for a skilled media campaign to contrast him to Cheney, the allegedly gruff puppet-master of the president. The elitist with oil money dripping from his hands and disdain for the little guy written all over his face.
But that leads back to the problem of making Edwards too front-stage. If he could weather whatever attacks the GOP would launch, Edwards might end up upstaging Kerry in the campaign. He might suddenly be seen as the man behind the curtain, a la Cheney. That would be a first even Ronald Reagan, always brimming with self-confidence, couldn't bring himself to take former president Gerald Ford as his 1980 running mate. (It was close to a deal.)
Probably Kerry and the Democrats will avoid taking the chance, and thereby fumble what could be their best chance to break this nip-and-tuck race. While they hesitate, a somewhat slow three weeks for news hurricanes duly noted has seen Bush creep forward in the polls. For a long while it was the Bush campaign that had apparently run out of new ideas. Now it's apparently Kerry's turn. He's been knocked back on his heels by the controversial "swift boat" ads about his Vietnam veteran service. His camp needs a new spark. Our poll suggests that he should look no further than the man standing next to him.
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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