The race for the White House is far from over

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If you can't change the candidate, then change the staff. That old maxim of US Presidential politics now applies to John Kerry. Trailing in the polls and oddly unable to impose himself on the campaign, the Massachusetts senator is reported to have brought in some proven winners from Clinton campaigns past, to add salt to his insipid effort thus far. And, Democrats are saying, not a moment too soon.

If you can't change the candidate, then change the staff. That old maxim of US Presidential politics now applies to John Kerry. Trailing in the polls and oddly unable to impose himself on the campaign, the Massachusetts senator is reported to have brought in some proven winners from Clinton campaigns past, to add salt to his insipid effort thus far. And, Democrats are saying, not a moment too soon.

August was a disastrous month for Mr Kerry. He failed to cash in on a successful nominating convention in Boston. Only belatedly did he react to the slanderous attacks on his Vietnam record by a group of hostile Swift Boat veterans, who spread their poison with the tacit approval of the Bush White House. By the time the challenger did hit back, the damage was done.

Unarguably, Mr Kerry's constant emphasis on his heroics in Vietnam has been a tactical error, keeping the argument off the domestic issues where Mr Bush is clearly vulnerable. Capping everything has been a curious passivity. Presidential elections are normally a referendum on the performance of the incumbent. The Massachusetts senator instead has allowed this one to become a referendum on himself. Mr Kerry, never the nimblest and most compelling of campaigners, has been slow to define himself. Mr Bush's unscrupulous operatives have gleefully done the job for him.

But it is far too early to write off Mr Kerry. As a politician, he is at his best when his back is against the wall. As the crucial Iowa caucuses demonstrated, he is a "good closer," who invariably ends campaigns much more strongly than he starts them. He is a powerful debater too, who should do well in the three Presidential debates. Above all, this election is at the mercy of events. Seven marines were killed in a car bombing in Iraq yesterday, while 1,000 US servicemen were wounded in August alone. A few more weeks of similar bloodshed, and the misconceived war that the President's handlers conjured from the scene at the New York convention last week will return to centre stage, just as the battle for the White House reaches its climax.

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