Bush hits his stride and Kerry falters

The Republicans are enjoying a good bounce, and there are a number of reasons for believing it may last
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The Independent Online

Last week's Republican Convention was not for the squeamish. Left-leaning Europeans - and Americans - would have been revolted by the mixture of sentimentality, patriotic emotion and brutal negative campaigning. But it worked. Two weeks ago, in private - and, I believe, in candour - senior Republicans were saying that they expected to go into the convention five points in arrears. They were hoping to end up with a small lead plus momentum. The latest polls put the party more than 10 points in front, and there is a lot of momentum.

Much of the credit must go to the President's chief of staff for elections, Karl Rove, who is one of the greatest political choreographers in history. Mr Rove's Germanic name is the key to his modus operandi; this man has the Prussian general staff in his DNA. The convention was organised to the second; everyone and everything ruthlessly on message. The outcome was a brilliant blend of ballet and blitzkrieg.

A few perfectionists were unhappy about the Bush daughters, who were somewhat mawkish and did go on a bit, as did Barbara Bush, the President's mother. Barney, the First Dog, also appeared on the platform, but only on video. In some quarters, it was felt that the warnings about acting with children or animals should have been heeded and that the daughters and their granny should also have been pre-recorded. I suspect, however, that Mr Rove was wiser than the nattering nabobs of Fifth Avenue fastidiousness. Middle America is full of dippy daughters and feisty white-haired grandmas who like laying down the law. Middle America enjoys a good mawk.

The Republicans are now enjoying a good bounce, and there are a number of reasons for believing that it may last. In the first place, the party has a clear, simple narrative which a lot of voters seem to be accepting. It runs as follows. Yes, the economy has had difficulties, but America is recovering. Yes, there is a terrorist threat - because we live in a dangerous world. The answer to both problems is strong, consistent leadership under President Bush, not flip-flop under Senator Kerry.

Thus far, the Democrats have no convincing alternative. On the economy, Mr Kerry cannot decide whether he is a fiscal conservative or whether he wants to spend even more than George Bush has. The Senator sometimes implies that higher taxes on the rich would be sufficient to reduce the deficit and pay for additional spending. You do not need much of a grasp of arithmetic to know that two plus two does not equal 18. In manufacturing states, John Kerry has flirted with protectionism. But that message is also received by the far larger number of Americans whose living standards depend on free trade.

On terrorism and the Iraq war, Senator Kerry is equally implausible. He had hoped to fudge the issues by talking exclusively about his time in Vietnam. That tactic has now failed, partly because his foolish and unnecessary exaggerations brought down fire from the swift boat veterans, which is likely to be a continuing embarrassment for the Senator. It was idiotic of him to end up pinned on the defensive over his Vietnam service.

It was also unwise of John Kerry to believe that the long-distant fog of the Vietnam War would conceal his subsequent record. He may have spent four months in a combat zone. He then spent the next 400 months denigrating the American military and voting against its budgets. The Republicans always intended to stigmatise him as an East Coast elitist liberal. They have succeeded more easily than they expected.

Nor is it clear how Senator Kerry can recover, for he has one grave handicap: himself. There were plenty of American liberal journalists in New York. All were desperate to see Mr Bush defeated; few, if any, were equally enthusiastic about a Kerry victory. This is a man with no friends. People who know him do not seem to like or respect him. He is clever, but in a snide, smartass way that is unlikely to commend itself widely. Over the next eight weeks, a lot of Americans will be deciding which of the two candidates is the more likeable, and the outcome might well hinge on their answer. It is not going to be John Kerry.

Moreover, Mr Bush has become a formidable campaigner. Four years ago, he could be awkward on the stump. The words tended to come in bursts, interspersed by pauses. The face could look tense and the smile sometimes appeared strained; there was too much unnatural smirking. That is no longer true. These days, the President is much more fluent, relaxed and confident. He always seems to be enjoying himself, which is not true of Mr Kerry.

This time, Mr Bush can also exploit the electoral advantages of the presidency. We can be sure that Karl Rove has already planned the next 57 days. He will have decided when it should be Mr President speaking from the Oval Office, or good old George Bush chatting away in Ollie's Diner.

Equally, the Republicans have learned from the tactical mistakes which almost cost them the last election. Then, the President made the extraordinary decision to take the final weekend off. As a result, the news broadcasts were dominated by his decades-old drunk-driving conviction. Some Republican analysts believe that all this lost them five points.

There were also difficulties in party organisation. In the publicity about Florida, it has been forgotten that the Democrats captured four states - Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin - by a total of just under 17,000 votes. That cost the Republicans 29 electoral college votes.

In 2000, blacks and trade unionists constituted 27 per cent of the electorate and 38 per cent of those who voted. To their horror, the Republicans found that their opponents had become better than they were at turning out the vote. Mr Rove and his team have spent much of the past four years putting that right. Indeed, the Republican party has gone back to the past: to the era of precinct politics and knocking on doors.

George Bush is a natural party builder, as is Karl Rove. Between them, they have deepened their party's organisation and recruited lots of helpers who are happy to supplement the high technology and the electronic media by getting out on the beat.

It is not over yet. The President is still at the mercy of events, especially in Iraq. If there are large numbers of American casualties over the next few weeks, enough voters might still turn against the whole enterprise and the man who began it.

The presidential debates will also be important. They always terrify the staffers, for that is the moment when the scripting has to stop. But George Bush will start with one advantage. He has a coherent set of beliefs, and there is no need to conceal any of them from the voters. That is not true for John Kerry. When he is coherent, he is too liberal for the electorate. When he tries to pretend that he is not a liberal, he is insufficiently coherent.

Over the past few days, George Bush has hit his stride while John Kerry has lost his rhythm. The American conventional wisdom has always been that the serious campaigning does not start until after today's Labour Day holiday. Even so, it may be that the pattern for the campaign has already been set. If the polls do not rapidly change, the Kerry team will begin to feel like the second-placed crew in the boat race. It will seem as if their opponents have created an unbridgeable gap, and that all their strenuous exhaustion will be insufficient.