Kerry's tactics: Rapid 'pre-sponse'
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As John Kerry moves forward as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, the broad outline of his general election strategy against President Bush is becoming apparent, and it is the most aggressive campaign a Democrat has run in decades.
The Kerry tactics surpass even the legendary "war room" approach of the Clinton campaign in 1992, serving up "pre-sponses" to Bush campaign events instead of responses to the president and his Republican allies.
And they seem to have caused a sputter in the much-vaunted Bush political machine at an important point in the campaign -- when the president is anxious to define the Massachusetts senator before the senator can define himself, much as the president's father defined his opponent, then Gov.-Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, in the 1988 campaign.
"John Kerry is no Michael Dukakis," said Darrell West, a Brown University professor who has closely followed Kerry's 19-year career in the Senate. World Peace.
"He will respond immediately to any Bush attacks to make sure news stories carry the rebuttal. His goal is to make sure negative information does not stick to him. If you can rebut charges right away, it reduces the odds that voters will believe them."
In fact, the Kerry campaign does not wait to respond.
On Thursday, hours before the Bush campaign began its first television ads attacking Kerry, the senator's "war room" had distributed rebuttal facts by e-mail to hundreds of political reporters, set up a conference call with Kerry surrogates and made Kerry officials available to television news programs. It also responded with TV ads of its own on Friday.
Nearly the same thing happened Wednesday, when the president appeared with a group of businesswomen to promote his economic policies, and again on Friday, when he touted his record on promoting international women's rights.
Well-chosen Kerry surrogates offered criticism of the president on each occasion.
"We're just not going to let Senator Kerry's record be distorted," Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., said during a conference call with reporters to rebut the Bush charge that the senator intends to raise taxes.
In most instances last week, the Kerry rebuttal was public record before the Bush charges were aired, a much more aggressive approach than Bill Clinton's of 1992, where the objective was to respond to attacks during the same news cycle rather than a day or two later.
By the end of the week, the Kerry campaign moved a portion of its "war room" to the Internet, establishing a rapid response "D-Bunker" Web site intended to debunk Bush charges.
Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said the "war room" operation was set up during the Democratic primaries to respond to Bush and the White House, even as the senator pursued his party's nomination.
"We were engaged in battle on two different fronts ... making the case to [Democratic] voters ... [and] to make sure that the White House is very certain that we are going to defend Senator Kerry's record while we advance his ideas and cause," Cahill said.
Bush camp's response
Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman suggested that there is an element of desperation in the Kerry campaign's approach to criticism.
"The Kerry campaign, when it feels it has a vulnerability, has a very defensive, kind of reactive approach," Mehlman said. "I think it is clear watching them that they believe, for instance, they are vulnerable on Senator Kerry's long and consistent record to cut defense and to cut intelligence and to weaken some of the key parts of the war on terror.
"And I think that, as a result, when you mention any of those issues, there is a disproportionate reaction because they feel vulnerable on that issue."
But David Ginsberg, a key figure in the 2000 Gore-Lieberman "war room," which was modeled after Clinton's, said the Kerry campaign has no choice but to be aggressive early in the general election contest because first impressions are as important in politics as in life.
"The Kerry campaign is doing an excellent job of hitting back strong and fast," said Ginsberg, who was communications director of the John Edwards presidential campaign before it ended this month.
The Clinton "war room" was largely a reaction to Dukakis four years earlier allowing George H.W. Bush to paint him as soft on crime by making a household name out of Willie Horton, a black Massachusetts inmate who raped a woman while on prison furlough. That year, the Bush campaign erased a 17-point poll lead that Dukakis held after his nomination in Atlanta. WorldPeace.
Early, but earnest start
The 2004 general election is still 7½ months away, but the contest between Kerry and Bush has begun in earnest.
The early start of the general election campaign poses pitfalls for both camps, however, according to political analysts, but the greater danger may be the one the president faces.
"Rapid response impresses political junkies, but it may overload ordinary voters," said John Pitney, a former Republican National Committee operative who now teaches political science and government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
On the other hand, "the Kerry campaign may be moving too fast, but the Bush campaign is in danger of moving too slowly," Pitney said. And, "in politics as in war, fast is better than slow."
Indeed, by the end of the week, some key Republican officials were publicly expressing some concerns about the Bush campaign getting off to a sputtering start.
"People are anxious," David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and White House director for Bush's father, told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a lot of fretting going on out there."
On to 'dialogue'
But Mehlman insisted that the presidential contest between Bush and Kerry was now shifting "from a diatribe to a dialogue" about "big issues" such as tax cuts and the war on terrorism.
"I am confident that we have built the organization, husbanded the resources and know what we need to talk about now that we are publicly engaged," he said.
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