Is Bush in Trouble?

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For the past month the Bush campaign has been saying that the President would roll out his second term agenda in the final few weeks before the Republican convention in New York. But if you’ve watched George Bush on the campaign trail this week, his message seems unchanged, focusing mainly on which candidate will keep America safer.

The campaign unveiled a new ad on Wednesday in which the President invokes September 11th and promises to protect the nation, the third spot in two weeks to focus on terrorism. Bush spent much of his time on the stump this week mocking Kerry’s position on the war in Iraq. And Dick Cheney unleashed an even stronger attack, latching on to Kerry’s promise to "fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations." Cheney replied, “A sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans and who seek the chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands more.”

It’s a biting remark, but not as biting as the political reality the President now faces. If the election were held today, there’s a good chance George W. Bush would not be reelected. And if he doesn’t change the course of his campaign or dramatic news events don’t change the race, he’s not going to be reelected in November. Certainly the polls still show a close race. Most say Kerry has the lead, a few give it to Bush, but all put it within the margin of error. And Kerry gained only a small bump in the national polls from his convention. But that’s because conventions usually rally the party faithful around their nominee, and Bush, with some help from Howard Dean, united the Democrats months ago. The President really means it when he says he’s a uniter.

What has to be far more disturbing to the staff at Bush-Cheney ‘04 headquarters is the most recent round of polls from key battleground states. They show Kerry gaining ground in some of the states most crucial for Bush. The latest poll in Florida, where Bush was ahead before the convention, gives Kerry a six point lead. West Virginia is leaning toward Kerry. A New Hampshire poll shows Kerry ahead by seven points. All three states voted for Bush in 2000.

As for those close national polls, there are some strong signs that Bush will not pick up many votes from the small sliver of undecided Americans. Nonpartisan political guru Charlie Cook recently analyzed a series of AP polls from April to August and found that while 56% of surveyed voters believe the country is on the wrong track, 74% of undecided voters think that’s the case.

Dramatic news events could change the dynamics of the race, but this week’s headlines — a disappointing jobs report and heavy fighting in Najaf — aren’t helping Bush. Cultural issues, like New Jersey Governor James McGreavy’s dramatic coming-out and the fight over gay marriage could energize some voters, and possibly change the results in Ohio, which has a gay marriage ban amendment on the election day ballot, but it’s unlikely to overshadow war and the economy nationwide.

All of this puts Bush in a bit of a campaign straitjacket. To take the reins of his reelection, he needs to put forward a bold second-term agenda, offering something akin to the compassionate conservative message he stressed in 2000. But the economy and the war make it hard for him to change the public’s focus, and the deficit puts him in a fiscal bind when it comes to bold new programs. He has been hinting at his proposals for creating an “ownership society”, but cracking down on lawsuits or allowing voters to tuck away more cash in Medical Savings Accounts is not going to set the electorate on fire.

Bush continues to run against John Kerry, rather than for reelection. It might work. Kerry certainly has shown the ability to dig himself into a verbal hole with statements like “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” But unless the President rolls out a few surprises at his convention, he is in trouble.