LAS VEGAS -- President Bush is embracing troublesome topics that should be hurting him and fighting for states that should be tilting away from him in a campaign that has focused so far on character rather than issues.
In the Bush view of things, Iraq is a political asset, voters won't punish him for an ailing economy and the race is a referendum on Democratic Sen. John Kerry -- all opposites of what experts had predicted.
This is what happens when a disciplined, focused incumbent faces a challenger who, thus far, is neither -- and when voters start making gut-level choices based on notions of leadership and character rather than preferences on policy.
For Kerry to prevail, issues need to matter more.
The race is close, with Bush leading or pressing Kerry in several Democratic bastions, including Wisconsin and perhaps even New York, and solidifying his advantage in GOP-leaning states such as Missouri. In Florida, where the disputed 2000 election was decided, private polling gives Bush a slight lead.
The deaths of more than 1,000 U.S. troops might tempt an incumbent president to retreat from an unpopular war, but Bush seeks political gain from it. Even on its bloodiest days, he holds up the conflict as an example of his steely leadership and a willingness to make tough choices, while accusing his rival of wavering.
In a speech here to members of the National Guard, the president sought to deflect questions about his Vietnam-era service by turning the subject to what he said were Kerry's equivocations on Iraq.
''What's critical is that the president of the United States speak clearly and consistently at this time of great threat in our world, and not change positions because of expediency or pressure,'' Bush said Tuesday.
He's playing to undecided voters who tell pollsters they're wary about Iraq and the economy but still hold Bush in relatively high esteem on character traits such as strength, decisiveness and leadership.
It is a major part of Bush's re-election strategy to convince voters that the world is too dangerous to change leadership in the White House, even if the status quo is imperfect.
The loss of nearly 1 million jobs during his tenure is a problem for Bush, particularly in Midwest battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But, with a flurry of excuses and statistics, he has fought Kerry to a tie on the question of who is best suited to create jobs, polls show.
''When you're out rounding up the vote, remind people that our economy has been through a lot,'' he told supporters in Colorado on Tuesday. ''We've been through a recession. We had corporate scandals'' and the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
Bush loads his speeches with one-sided data on the economy, including his take on the 5.4 percent unemployment rate: ''That's lower than the average rate of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,'' he said.
The number of Americans without health insurance has risen during Bush's presidency, reaching nearly 45 million in 2003. Medicare costs are rising sharply. Yet the Republican put Kerry on the defense this week with a hard-hitting ad asserting that the Democratic plan would leave ''big government in charge. Not you. Not your doctor.''
After months of catering to his party's right wing, Bush has dusted off his ''compassionate conservative'' agenda. The Democrats say the GOP doesn't care about regular people. So Bush's stump speech includes a pitch to voters squeezed by the fast-moving new economy.
''I understand the world we live in today is a changing world,'' Bush said this week in Holland, Mich. ''Think about what happened in the workplace. Years ago our fathers and grandfathers worked for one job, one company; they had one pension plan, one health care plan. Today people change careers and change jobs often. And the most startling change of all is that women now work not only in the house but outside the house.''
Bush campaign polling shows the line plays well with suburban women, as does his assertion that Kerry's health care plan would amount to a government takeover.
Kerry has polls and focus groups of his own, and they suggest he can't win without undermining Bush's credibility. While aides acknowledge that it's late in the game to be defining a well-known incumbent, Kerry's reshuffled staff is casting every issue in the context of character.
Bush wasn't just wrong about waging war in Iraq, he was misleading. He hasn't just lost jobs, he hasn't been straight about it.
''His is the excuse presidency,'' Kerry said Wednesday as he tried to make the economy a character issue. ''Never wrong, never responsible, never to blame.''
Ron Fournier has covered national politics or the White House since 1993.
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