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Tactical Maneuvers

After deciding which states they will focus on, campaign strategists typically hit these states hard with TV advertising and grass-roots efforts such as house parties, bus tours, and the more traditional stump speeches and handshaking meet-the-voter events.

Most of the campaign budget goes to producing skillfully crafted—and often negative—TV ads, which can be shown hundreds of times in carefully selected key markets and aimed at specific issue groups such as pro-choice or seniors concerned about Social Security and Medicare.

Is Kerry a Flip-Flopper?

Bush decided to go negative early, launching a $10-million-per-week TV ad onslaught in the battleground states shortly after Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination. The ads were designed to portray Kerry as a waffling liberal who is weak on defense and wants to raise taxes.

Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist, said the ads accomplished their goal. "The two things voters know about Kerry today more than anything else is that he's a flip-flopper and he's going to raise your taxes."

Oregon and New Mexico appear to be two western states where Bush has a chance to turn up the volume on his libertarian anti-government message that has worked well in other western states.

Oregon has voted Democrat the past four elections, but Gore carried state by less than 7,000 votes in 2000. Early polls showed the state to be a dead heat, with Kerry leading in urban Portland and Bush out in front in the rest of the state, where the anti-tax message has been playing well. In New Mexico, where Gore narrowly won by fewer than a 1,000 votes in 2000, the same anti-tax message might work, but it will be countered by rapid growth in the state's Latino population.

What He Says:
We must "stay the course." —George W. Bush

What He Wants You to Hear:
Keep me in office—I'm not a "flip-flopper."

But Don't Forget...
My course led us into the war in Iraq.

Bush can also try to steal some heartland states that went Democrat in 2000. Gore won Iowa and Wisconsin together by 9,200 votes, so either one could slip into Bush's hands in 2000 with a strong family-values message. The same strategy could apply to Michigan and Minnesota, although the large urban areas in Detroit and the Twin Cities make a shift less likely. Nader had a particularly strong showing in Minnesota in 2000, siphoning off 127,000 votes from Gore. Nader could be a big factor in tilting any of these states towards Bush this year if Nader can make himself heard on the issues without the benefit of the huge ad budgets the major party candidates have.

The "flip-flopper" ad campaign gained a lot of traction for Bush in the battleground states until it was drowned out by a nasty wave of insurgent fighting in Iraq, the noise of the 9/11 Congressional hearings, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal—a series of events that put the Bush campaign in crisis mode and sent his approval ratings to the lowest point in his presidency.

Who's John Kerry?

Despite this opening, Kerry has had a difficult time taking advantage of the President's problems in Iraq. When the turmoil of the war dominates the news, it shoves everything else to the back burner, including Kerry's efforts to introduce himself to voters and unveil his policy initiatives.

Kerry spelled out his plan to cut the budget deficit in half on the same day Iraqi insurgents launched a series of attacks that captured parts of three cities and killed several U.S. soldiers. The policy speech was relegated to the inside of most papers and virtually ignored by the network news.

Two key prongs of Kerry's strategy depend on being able to turn attention away from the war and back to domestic and economic issues. Kerry has been trying to focus on the loss of jobs even in the midst of recovery to swing several key states his way, including Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

The best demographic trend for Kerry is the rapid growth in the nation's Latino population, which could help him make inroads in Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

What He Says:
"This administration has a truth deficit, not just a fiscal deficit." —John Kerry

What He Wants You to Hear:
Bush knew there were no WMDs in Iraq and sent us to war anyway. And he can't balance the budget.

But Don't Forget...
I supported the war, but not the funds to pay for it.

Although Kerry's official fundraising total is only two-thirds of what Bush has raised, total spending on TV advertising has been relatively even if you count ads supplemented by Democratic political activist groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund.

One of the ads questions why the Bush administration has spent $7 billion on Iraq: "Shouldn't America be his top priority?" Another shows a factory with Chinese characters on the smokestack and suggests that Bush's policies have led to the export of American jobs.

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