Kerry And The "Last Man Standing" Approach
(Thanks to PollingReport.com for the graphic)
My concerns with the lack of an aggressive surrogate and Tier Two effort within the Kerry campaign are well-known to anyone who visits here frequently. I had hoped by now that Kerry would be flying above the fray focusing on three or four major themes in a forward-looking, positive way while a group of strategically-selected surrogates were bashing Bush daily and keeping Rove playing defense. It hasn’t happened, and maybe it won’t, so I’m gradually getting over it. But it is clear to me that Kerry is developing an alternate campaign modus operandi that may work also. I call it the “Last Man Standing” strategy.
Under this strategy, Kerry accepts the fact that he will never be seen as a warm and fuzzy guy, and knows he will never convince people of something he isn’t. As Howard Fineman noted in a couple of good pieces lately, Kerry is comfortable with this. As far as Kerry is concerned, he’s not trying to win a popularity contest. His only goal is be left standing as the lesser of two evils in November, appearing to be a credible, competent, and seasoned president-in-waiting who will do a better job of running things with better people than another four years of the incumbent would offer. (PS-Don't underestimate the significance of having media heavyweights like Fineman in your camp this early)
Under this strategy, Kerry picks and chooses his targets on when to attack Bush, instead of an all-out Tier Two assault that I have wanted. This is the “let him hang with his own rope” approach, where Kerry stays somewhat detached from the day-to-day cycle of bad news for Bush and keeps his focus on pushing and locking in messages on domestic issues while Bush’s time gets gobbled up being dragged down by Iraq. It is a strategy designed to avoid the mistakes of the 2002 midterm elections where the Democrats never really established with the voters their base of differences with the president and what they would do differently on their areas of strength, namely domestic policies. Kerry is talking about what he wants to talk about, instead of getting into a daily back and forth with Rove over Iraq and terrorism. Again, it is a gamble because Kerry is passing up opportunities to drive a nail into Bush’s coffin on Iraq, but the polls do show that Kerry has reestablished his advantages over Bush on almost all issues.
But for this strategy to work effectively, Kerry has to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself. He may stay away from Iraq, but he needs to pick which domestic issues to attack Bush on himself, since there has been differing stories about when Kerry plans to name a running mate, and there is no evidence yet of an ongoing surrogate campaign. To this end, Kerry has already fired away at Bush on gas prices, health care, and education, and according to the Zogby poll I linked to last night, Kerry can score major points with key groups if he selects his issues and voting blocks carefully, as Fineman notes about plant closings in key states. So what makes sense here is for Kerry to focus his whole effort not on going toe-to-toe with Bush daily over Iraq, but to spend all his time between now and the convention reintroducing himself with voters through the $25 million ad buy, and then switching right about now to an attack mode on issues, focusing on domestic issues between now and the convention. Then, at the convention, switch over to the positive, forward-looking John Kerry while he has the country’s attention and focus on the positive and the future the rest of the way, letting a surrogate operation at that point do the negative work. Again, under Kerry’s “Last Man Standing” approach, voters would be fed up over the summer with Bush, gradually gain acceptance of Kerry as an alternate without ever really falling in love with him, and swing over to him just before the election.
It may work, and the polls lately show dropping numbers for Bush and more voters moving into the undecided column. Pollsters have said lately that this is the first stage of a problem for the incumbent, whereby events sour voters on their support for the incumbent first, then they switch to undecided, and then they switch to the alternative when they are convinced that he is worth handing the keys to. Ergo, Kerry’s “Last Man Standing” approach. I’m not saying I love this approach or that it will work, but this is what I think he is doing. John Kerry is not aiming for love here, or to be something that he isn’t. He just wants you to see him as someone better able to clean up our messes than the incumbent.
Will it work? Kerry is ahead now in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and dead even in Florida, even before launching a full-scale offensive there at seniors over Medicare and Social Security. Kerry needs to do more work in New Jersey and Michigan, but neither of those states are expected to go for Bush if Kerry picks the right issues and runs this type of campaign.
And if it fails, it won’t be for a lack of money. The Post reports this morning that Kerry is raising more money than Bush now, more ominous for Bush is the news that Rove is blowing through money at an alarming rate. Rove has spent more than $120 million dollars already, and all he has to show for it is a good organization headed by damaged candidates running only even in the presidential race and significantly behind in the congressional preference polls. As for Kerry running mates, new polls show that neither Gephardt nor Edwards would harm Kerry, and a new poll even shows that Edwards might deliver North Carolina to the Kerry column. And Carville and Greenberg detect that the race has turned against Bush in recent weeks.
So will the “Last Man Standing” approach work? We’ll see, but at least it appears that Kerry is comfortable with this approach, as it doesn’t require him to be something that he isn’t. And after 2000, that may count for a lot.