New York Times
The Comeback Prez
By WILLIAM SAFIRE       September 6, 2004

Washington — All that sustained thumb-sucking you heard about this being a polarized electorate, with only a tiny sliver of undecideds, has just ended with a loud pop.  Polls that showed John Kerry ahead by a few points going into his convention a month ago now show President Bush up 11 points.  That means the old "swing vote" still swings and the battle for voters is in the political center.

The Labor Day Bush trend (which could, by the nature of swing voting, be reversible) has Democratic politicians between dismay and panic.  As usual, they are crying foul at a veterans group's answer to Kerry's blunder of running on his Vietnam war and anti-war record.  As insiders shake up the staff, outsiders pre-emptively lay the basis for post-election excuses, positioning themselves for embittered told-you-so's.

Longtime Democratic pollsters have been calling journalists to note that the sophisticated "internals" of the current polling were even more gloomy for the Kerry campaign, showing a two-to-one advantage for the president on the paramount issue of the war.  Retiring Senator Bob Graham, whose failure to dissociate himself from Pat Buchanan's anti-Israel screed on "Meet the Press" yesterday will not help Democrats in Florida, complains that Kerry's campaign is "still a little out of focus. "

Other Democratic pols had harsher advice: no more Mr.  Nice Guy.  Harold Ickes, the rejected Clintonite who has been directing millions of dollars into supposedly independent TV spots savaging the president, cries that Kerry should "throw caution to the wind. "  Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania advised that Kerry "has got to start smacking back. "

The gibes from his own side caused Kerry to overreact.  Instead of moving away from the Vietnam issue, which has been a real toothache for his campaign, he bit down on it.   Uncharacteristically, he took the low road, overtly contrasting his war duty with Dick Cheney's draft deferments. 

That flailing-out was done more in anger than in calculation.  Millions of Americans of draft age in the 1960's who are voters today were deferred from service by virtue of student status or fatherhood.  They do not appreciate having their deferment attributed to lack of patriotism.   Now Kerry has unnecessarily upset a lot of non-veteran swing voters.

What can swing the pendulum back?  What are the presently ascendant Republicans worried about?

Not another new Kerry position on the war in Iraq; he has learned that issue is a loser and no "I shall go to Baghdad" stunt would sway the undecideds.  Despite the wishes of both Democrats and Republicans, however, Iraqi insurgents presumably think it is in their interest to increase American casualties in October - thereby to defeat Bush's unequivocal "whatever it takes" policy.  Nobody can be certain how a terrorist Tet offensive would affect U. S.  politics.

We can be certain that bad economic news, if it comes, will hurt Bush.  When the recovery stuttered this summer and Kerry's political fortunes rose, we had a brief "Kerry market" - stocks declined sharply at the prospect of dividend and capital-gains tax increases, recovering along with Bush's recent comeback.  If the figures near election time are not good, a worried market will drop as Kerry's stock rises, accentuating investor gloom.  Public pessimism cheers the challenger. 

And then there are the debates, with all their gaffe potential.  In that big moment of the swing voter lies the main hope of the Kerry supporters after their botched Boston convention, its mistaken theme highlighted by the successful G. O. P.  affair. 

Yet Kerryites cannot hold out hope publicly that their man will out-debate Bush and thereby reverse fortunes lest they raise expectations of a Kerry triumph; in that case, September's much-needed Democratic morale booster would enable Bush to do "better than expected" in October's debates, vitiating any victory.  (It's not easy being behind. )

Finally, bouncing Bushies are properly concerned with peaking too soon.  Because the media revel in a horse race right down to the wire, any reduction of the present Bush surge will be hailed with a jubilant "Here comes Kerry!"

But the Republicans coming out of their New York success - with a personally popular candidate, a much deeper surrogate bench, the momentum of an upbeat message and a clearly centrist appeal - have good reasons to have faith in the November decision of today's legion of swing voters.