Sunday Polls; Responding To Attacks; And New Messages Needed
The last Sunday before the New Hampshire primary brings us conflicting polls, a return by Howard Dean to pointing out sharp differences with John Kerry, and an effort by all to attract independent voters. First, this morning’s latest American Research Group New Hampshire daily tracking poll shows contrary to Zogby that Kerry is actually lengthening his lead over Dean. Kerry logs in at 38%, with Clark (17%), Dean (16%), and a surging Edwards (15%) now bunched together far back in second place. Zogby for his part reports only a seven point spread between Kerry (30%) and Dean (23%), with Clark far back at 13% and no signs of an Edwards surge (9%). The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll for New Hampshire shows Kerry at 38% and Dean at 25%, with Clark plummeting to 10%.
As for the campaign itself, the New York Times reports this morning that the candidates are pursuing independents vigorously in New Hampshire, as they make up a larger voting block in the state than Democrats. It is important to note that all of the major polls target what they call likely Democratic primary participants since independents can participate in the Democratic primary.
The rite of passage for any frontrunner is to see how they respond to the attacks and opposition research from their opponents and the other party. One of the benefits of a contested series of contests is that whomever emerges should be not only battle tested but also experienced in responding to opposition research. This is especially critical when your general election opponent is Karl Rove backed by $200 million in corporate money. Dean has already gone through this gauntlet for better or worse, and now it is Kerry’s turn. According to the New York Times and several of the main network reporters covering the race, the GOP is putting out the word over the weekend that they have a “file” on Kerry of opposition research that they are ready to use. There is nothing surprising here, as it would be more surprising if they didn’t. I also suspect that Rove has something more on file about Kerry than Ed Gillespie’s pathetic rants that Kerry is too liberal and “out of sync” with the voters.
Dean is trying to question Kerry’s judgement over the first Gulf War and contrasting that with his votes in favor of the second war. These are legitimate areas of inquiry and Kerry, as the frontrunner will be judged over his ability to respond and deal effectively with any attacks. Better that he be able to deal with attacks from his Democratic opponents and pathetic garbage from the RNC now, that to watch him or any other Democrat flounder in responding to attacks this fall, like Gore did four years ago. It is the rite of passage in responding to attacks as Time notes that gives the voters a chance to evaluate the temperament and character of a candidate, which is why Kerry is on top at the moment. His appeal is based on a reserved temperament, a perceived inability to be as emotional as Dean, and a resume that includes honored military service that negates to a large degree the “liberal” smears from the RNC and White House.
But the challenge coming out of New Hampshire for Kerry and others are several. As the Los Angeles Times points out in a couple of pieces, New Hampshire’s contest has de-emphasized issues and focused instead on temperament and resumes. Aside from downplaying contrasts with each other (notwithstanding Dean’s last minute attempts to go after Kerry), such an approach doesn’t give voters a clear cut reason to see why Democrats are different from Bush, especially on national security. You almost get the impression as he plans to go south that Kerry plans to run on his war record primarily, instead of showing that he has a broad set of policy alternatives to Bush. It is one thing to criticize Bush’s record, as he and the others have done. But you can bring swing voters aboard by showing you have alternative policies that are better than the White House.
Second, another challenge for Kerry and the others that I have noticed, is the inability to offer new or alternate messages. This is tied to the inability to lay out alternate policies, but also shows an over-reliance on the alleged virtues of repetition. For example, Kerry used the same “bring it on” and “aircraft carrier” tag lines against possible Bush attacks on national security these last few days that he used last Monday in his victory speech in Iowa. Enough already. Get some new material. At least Dean has already remade his message from Iowa to a degree. Kerry as the front runner has to show an ability to go after Bush with fresh, multiple messages that can engage voters’ attention. How many more times will voters see the “bring it on” mantra before they conclude that Kerry or the others have nothing new to say? Is it really that hard to point out what you would do better or differently on national security? Can’t you offer: 1) ten-year federal funding for 100,000 new police, fire, and national guard personnel; 2) better funding and tighter requirements for port and chemical/nuclear plant security; and 3) an aggressive special forces effort to go after Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, just to name a few? Is it really that hard to find Bush applause lines from the SOTU and use those against him as new and mocking tag lines of your own?
Staying with the message might get Kerry through New Hampshire with a victory. But as he moves to Missouri and South Carolina amongst other places, he can establish himself as the front runner by showing that he not only has the resume and temperament to go after Bush, but also the message and intellectual portfolio to show why he is better than another four years of this regime.