By ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
WASHINGTON - With many pollsters saying the presidential race is so close they are uncomfortable predicting a winner, strategists for both the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns are beginning to mull the high points and the low points of the general campaign. What do they wish they had done differently? What are they most pleased that they did?
From President Bush's perspective, how did an incumbent president who had a 90 percent job approval rating after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, get to the point where he is in a dead heat with a senator from Massachusetts who was virtually unknown a year ago?
From Sen. John Kerry's perspective, why is he not doing better against a President who presides over a country where a majority of the population thinks the country is headed in the wrong direction, worry about the economy, and believes the war has been handled badly?
Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for the Bush campaign, said this week he is confident that Mr. Bush will be re-elected because he is gaining momentum in battleground states. But he also conceded the flood of bad news this year:from the lack of flu vaccine to the Iraqi prison scandal, the ongoing insurgency in Iraq, the FBI's investigation of whether Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm, Halliburton, was improperly awarded a lucrative contract, all have hurt the President.
He said Mr. Kerry's worst mistakes were saying he voted both for and against $87 billion for the war in Iraq, which gave the Bush campaign the "senator flip-flop" videotape they played over and over, and spending too much time on his Vietnam war record at the Boston convention. That meant that Mr. Kerry spent much of the rest of the summer as prey to the Swift Boat Veterans' ads that he abandoned his fellow veterans by his anti-war efforts and trying to convince Democratic veterans again he should be elected.
Mr. Mehlman also said that by not concentrating on his Senate record early enough, Mr. Kerry opened himself up to charges he had done little in the Senate for 20 years.
Doug Sosnik, a former Clinton White House political director who now advises Mr. Kerry, insists Mr. Kerry will win because he is ahead in polling of the 1 of 10 Americans who have voted. He said Mr. Bush's biggest mistake was declaring "mission accomplished" in May, 2003, when the war in Iraq was far from over. For a long time, Mr. Sosnik said, he feared the Kerry campaign's worst mistake was not running national advertising in August and much of September, but said he is beginning to think now that saving the money for late in the campaign might have been wise.
Tad Devine, a senior strategist for the Kerry campaign who pushed for "going dark" in August and September to conserve resources, said Mr. Bush's high point in the campaign was his acceptance speech at the New York convention and Mr. Kerry's high point was the first debate.
He said Mr. Kerry's low point was in not answering the Swift Boat Veterans' ads criticizing him for opposing the war in Vietnam after he returned home. Mr. Devine said Mr. Bush's low point was his performance in the first debate, where many Americans thought for the first time that Mr. Kerry was qualified to be president.
Democrats also think Mr. Bush has been hurt significantly by the apparent revelation that 360 pounds of explosives were stolen from Iraqi bunkers because they were not secured by U.S. troops. But Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Mr. Bush and a pollster, said Mr. Kerry has miscalculated by focusing on that issue, which is disputed. This lets Mr. Bush say Mr. Kerry rushes to judgment without the facts and which has kept Mr. Kerry from focusing on domestic issues. "I was surprised he [Mr. Kerry] did that,'' he said.
Mr. Dowd said one of the smartest moves of the Bush campaign was to have Democratic senator Zell Miller, who nominated former President Clinton, speak against Mr. Kerry at the GOP convention. While many pundits said Mr. Miller's speech was an over-the-top tirade by a disgruntled Democrat and Democrats insisted it was ineffective, Mr. Dowd said it has been "very powerful" with soft Democrats and undecided voters.
Michael Donilon, a senior consultant with the Kerry campaign, said putting 250,000 Democratic operatives on the ground in battleground states, in comparison with 90,000 four years ago, was one of the smartest moves the Democrats made.
Mr. Dowd with the Bush campaign said one of the most successful strategies for Republicans was having Mr. Bush stay on message day after day and chip away at Mr. Kerry as "the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time."
Mark Mellman, pollster and senior aide to Mr. Kerry, said the biggest blunders by Mr. Bush were the two policies he set: going to war without a plan to win the peace and squeezing the middle class by passing a tax cut that benefited the wealthiest Americans more than the middle class. "If he hadn't [initiated those], he'd be re-elected easily."
Nicolle Devenish, communications director for the Bush campaign, said one of Mr. Kerry's worst mistakes was naming Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter while answering a debate question on the same-sex marriage debate, outraging many Americans. But Mr. Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, insists that Mary Cheney is "fair game" in the debate, although both candidates say marriage is a union between a man and a woman.
Both sides concede the race is close, but both are flatly predicting victory. Both campaigns also insist voters will know late Tuesday night who the victor is, and that there won't be a winner of the Electoral College vote and another winner of the popular vote, as happened in 2000.
Pollster John Zogby, who has one of the best reputations in the polling business, said yesterday his polling going into the weekend showed a 47-47 split. He said he has "a hunch" John Kerry will win because Mr. Bush hasn't cracked 50 or above in his polling, but he also conceded the President may win. The 10 battleground states he's been tracking are too close to call, he said. He predicts a turnout this year of 55 percent of eligible voters.
The Bush campaign cites national averages of polls. For example, an average of six national polls yesterday found Mr. Bush ahead 49 to 46 with a margin of error of four points. Mr. Dowd said he is confident of victory because since the last debate, Mr. Bush consistently has been up nationwide by two to three points.
Mr. Dowd said he disputes the conventional, historic wisdom that at this point the three to four percent of voters who are undecided tend to break for the challenger. Mr. Kerry's pollster, Mr. Mellman, said polling shows undecided voters are more negative about Mr. Bush and the war than the population in general. But neither side knows if they will vote or not or if the substantial increase in the number of 18-year-old to 29-year-old voters will help Mr. Kerry, as his campaign predicts.
Contact Ann McFeatters at: email@example.com or 202-662-7071.