An Uphill Battle
Published on Friday, July 30, 2004 by the Boston Globe
An Uphill Battle
by Robert Kuttner

IT WOULD be hard to imagine a better convention week for the Democrats. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Max Cleland, among others, rose to genuine eloquence, offering an admirable narrative of John Kerry's own story, setting the stage for last night. What's more, the convention surely set a Democratic record for self-restraint. Even the grassroots activists to Kerry's left, who sponsored their own three-day "Take Back America" event, vowed to work to get the Democratic ticket elected and then work even harder to rebuild grass-roots institutions.

Democrats were also heartened by Bush's continuing slide. Every second-term election is a referendum on the sitting president, and this president is currently approved by well under half the electorate. No incumbent president has been reelected in November with those July poll numbers.

But despite the Democrats' unity and jubilation this week, Kerry must still be rated the underdog. Here are several reasons why:

Making the Sale. After all that buildup, Kerry's own speech needed to be a home run. His words certainly struck just the right tone of strength, optimism, and regret about Bush's failures. But the written text was so long that Kerry had to race through dozens of applause lines in order to finish by 11 p.m., when he knew the networks would tune out. So a potentially great speech came across as merely a very good one.

Kerry had four months to prepare for this moment, but as late as mid-afternoon yesterday, he and his aides were still tinkering with his text. If this process is the metaphor for the campaign -- too many hands on the tiller -- Lieutenant Kerry needs to seize the wheel and fast, or Bush's superior discipline will trump Kerry's superior intellect and case.

The Florida Factor. Kerry's popular support may be on the rise, but the Electoral College arithmetic is relentless. Kerry could win the popular vote by piling up huge majorities in New York, California, and the rest of "blue" America, but still lose the Electoral College and the White House if he can't carry two out of three crucial swing states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.

The Florida election machinery is fully as subject to manipulation as it was in 2000. This time, there will be teams of Democratic lawyers challenging efforts to disenfranchise registered voters. But this monitoring and litigation must play catch-up. In effect, the Democrats and their allies are reinventing, with limited powers and at private expense, what the civil rights division of John Ashcroft's Justice Department is failing to do. "We just have to assume that they'll steal Florida again," says one senior Kerry strategist.

The Press. Democrats who actually attended the Boston event felt great. But the networks gave it only three hours of prime-time coverage over four nights.

To this viewer, the coverage was not only more abbreviated than usual but even more fatuous, hectoring speakers over whether they had stayed "on-message," blathering on and on about Teresa, and badgering Kerry for a position on the Iraq war that is entirely consistent and defensible. (He supported a war resolution based on dishonest information from the White House and has relentlessly criticized the administration's conduct in Iraq ever since.) With so few viewers experiencing the actual event, Kerry could well get less than the traditional convention "bounce" in the polls.

Money, Money, Money. To general astonishment, Democrats and independent progressive groups have capitalized on anti-Bush sentiment and are almost financially competitive with the Republicans. But with his official nomination, Kerry is now publicly funded while Bush can keep raising tens of millions in private money until the GOP officially nominates him in late August. And then watch as the Republicans set up their own independent committees and raise tens of millions more.

A September Surprise. Well placed sources say that Bush's client government in Baghdad will put Saddam Hussein on trial, conveniently, in September. (It took years to prepare the Milosevic trial, but the efficient Iraqis will display Saddam in time for the US election.)

Saddam's outrages will be paraded on live American TV, reinforcing the idea that the Iraq war, no matter what the misrepresentations and blunders, was justified. Of course, nobody is debating whether Saddam was a vicious tyrant. The issue is whether America should have rushed to war on false information, without allies, and without a competent plan for the aftermath. Still, a September show trial will be a Bush propaganda coup.

The country has grave doubts about Bush's leadership. But everything I know about politics tells me that Election Night 2004 will be another nail-biter.

Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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