Presidential race now a matter of character, perceived arrogance

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2004

Several weeks ago, our InsiderAdvantage national presidential survey showed George W. Bush retaking the lead in the race for president. Now it appears that Bush has enjoyed far more of a "bump" in support from the Republican convention than Sen. John Kerry did from the Democratic convention.

With less than two months until Election Day, the race boils down to two or three critical events. Perhaps foremost will be the articulated messages and the voter turnouts in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. There are other "battleground" states, for sure. But most experts, including Bush's own campaign manager, now acknowledge that the candidate who can win the day in two of these three states will likely inhabit the White House come January.

Key in those states and many others will be the outcome of the coming presidential debates, perhaps the most telling campaign events of all. If Kerry's preparation and performance are as lacking in coherent message and strategic oversight as they were during the Democratic convention, he likely will doom his chances of winning the election.

At the same time, if Bush responds flippantly or shallowly to Kerry attacks on his stewardship of the economy or the Iraq war, such a misstep will cost him.

As I've noted before, the race will likely come down to arrogance, or the perception of it.

Bush at the GOP convention smartly and humorously dismissed the charge of arrogance against him when he described his alleged swagger as "what we in Texas call walking."

Will voters in key states buy this seemingly newfound humbleness? Will Kerry dressing casually and looking as if his nose were tilted slightly upward to get a sniff of fine French Bordeaux come across as an elitist trying to play the everyday man?

Here's what Americans had to say when asked, "Who do you think is more arrogant?"

John Kerry 40 percent

George Bush 36 percent

Don't know 24 percent

The poll was conducted Aug. 13-14 among 500 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Congratulations, Sen. Kerry. You have somehow managed to win the sweepstakes as "most arrogant" against a president some have accused of trying to be the puppet master of the whole planet. For any doubters out there, consider the Kerry strategy. He has clumsily kept beating the dead horse of his Vietnam career while completely mishandling the attacks on that same war record. Meanwhile, as the economy spins aimlessly, he has yet to find a meaningful message that will turn economic uncertainty into votes for him.

But watch out, Bush camp. It's at times like this, with the race starting to look like it's on ice, that overconfidence often sets in. For example, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller provided a gutsy and powerful endorsement of Bush at the Republican convention. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger's brilliant oratory the night before, Miller made the GOP get-together actually worth watching. However, comments from top Bush officials, distancing themselves from Miller when he was clearly delivering their message, doesn't indicate a grateful or gracious Bush campaign.

Now comes the tricky part. Kerry must find a message that sticks in the minds of voters. Bush must limit his verbal clumsiness until Nov. 2. And both sides must adjust to an awkward situation in Florida, where the state is being torn apart by a succession of hurricanes and tropical storms. How do you get a message across to Florida voters when the southwestern section of the state is still cleaning up from one storm even as the rest of the state is just beginning to recover from a second one and a potential third one is lurking out at sea?

For Kerry, traipsing about a state where most people are downright miserable might come across as both gratuitous, self-serving and, yes, arrogant. For Bush, touring damaged areas and providing federal assistance seems presidential. In other words, the misfortune of nature's fickle ways could become political misfortune for Kerry.

As for Pennsylvania and Ohio, it probably wasn't smart for Kerry to launch a "midnight attack" on Dick Cheney's war record just an hour or so after Bush's acceptance speech at the GOP convention. I had to ask myself, "Which war? Was it World War I or II?" But seriously, no one cares about Cheney's war record.

All of this boils down to the fact that campaigns usually reflect the character of the candidates. And if arrogance is the truest read on the character of the person at the head of a political ticket, then John Kerry currently is winning the gold medal and watching the presidential race start to slip away. He still has time to catch up, but first he's got to shed his precious pedigree and his real or perceived big ego.

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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