Tuesday, April 20, 2004

KERRY'S RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN. Boston Globe Washington-bureau chief Peter Canellos has come up with a new way of framing the Bush-Kerry race. In his Tuesday "National Perspective" column, Canellos writes that Kerry is running as the incumbent and Bush as the challenger. The idea is that with Bush under fire for his handling of such life-and-death matters as Iraq and 9/11, it is Kerry who represents continuity and Bush who personifies radical change - change for the worse:

Kerry, for his part, seems to have realized that his best hope is to run as the Default President, the place to which voters can connect when the regular president goes on the fritz.

This makes Kerry's position unusual, to say the least, for a presidential challenger. Instead of painting castles in the sky and urging voters to share his dreams, Kerry has been grounding himself in the policies of the past. He will try to become the incumbent in the race, representing 50 years of postwar consensus against four years of Bush.

Canellos is definitely on to something, but is Kerry being smart? For the moment, yes, because Bush is melting down. But surely the Kerry campaign can't expect that to last through Election Day. Once Bush regains his groove, Kerry's current above-the-fray stance is going to start looking an awful lot like the diffidence that got him into so much trouble last year, when his campaign nearly died before it could reach the starting line.

Slate's Kerry-loathing blogger, Mickey Kaus, argues (scroll down to April 12) that the senator's best shot is to stay out of sight: "John Kerry does best when he's exposed to the voters least! His optimal approach is to let Bush stew in the Iraq mess while he remains offstage, an attractive unknown. Any other strategy is a triumph of vanity over recent experience."

But that's not right. In fact, it's when Kerry gets over-confident and slides into autopilot that he gets into trouble. In nearly every one of his political campaigns, he's looked surprisingly vulnerable until crunch time, when he goes into crisis mode and blows his opponent away, whether it be Bill Weld in Massachusetts eight years ago or Howard Dean in Iowa three months ago. Somehow I doubt that's going to work against Karl Rove.

It's crisis time right now, and it's going to stay that way until November.

SPEED READING. Unless you're actually planning to read all 432 pages of John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best (and you know you're not; I might, but then I get paid to do such things), you will want to check out Chris Suellentrop's amusing guide to the highlights.

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