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Kerry’s Gameplan for Success

Vivek Rao

Just a few months ago, the second best senator from Massachusetts appeared destined for catastrophic failure in his long-awaited bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet decisive shifts in campaign strategy and management -- particularly, a focused and concerted effort in Iowa -- have earned John Kerry more momentum than he probably ever imagined, and have placed him in a commanding pole position. With polls showing him in a near dead heat with President George W. Bush when the two are hypothetically pitted head-to-head, it is time for Kerry and his team need to swiftly shift their focus from the Howard Deans and Wesley Clarks of the world to Dubya himself if the Democrats are to have any hope of ousting the current administration.

The buzzword of the current political season has been “electability,” and that is far and away the most important factor pushing Kerry to dominating success in the primaries. Yet if Kerry truly wants to maximize his electability, he needs to perform a tricky balancing act by emphasizing vastly different aspects of his candidacy in the various regions of the nation.

As impressive as Kerry’s string of primary victories has been, his loss to Senator John Edwards in South Carolina -- by a large margin, too -- confirmed the New Englander’s suspected vulnerability in the South, a weakness that will be further tested by today’s voting in Tennessee and Virginia. While his candidacy appears rock solid in the traditional Democratic bastion of the Northeast and nearly as strong in the moderately left-leaning Midwest and Northwest, Kerry needs to develop a more effective strategy for winning over voters in traditionally Republican states.

Though Kerry has recently turned to bashing Bush more and more, it is hard to believe that strategy will ultimately prove effective in the South. While railing on the president’s ineffective and unethical foreign policy should be a potent tactic -- especially with previously unassailable walls of jingoistic propaganda weakening by the day -- it may fall on deaf ears in areas where the president’s allegedly patriotic nature and supposedly solid moral values dominate popular opinion. Kerry’s best bet may be to convince voters that he is just as strongly patriotic and morally sound as Bush, and that the tiebreaker should be his ability to bring a new approach to both fiscal and foreign policy. These changes should strengthen the economy and save American lives overseas, improvements that should appeal greatly to the common voter.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton fed off a flourishing economy to waltz to a dominating victory over Senator Bob Dole. What stands out about that election was Clinton’s moderate support in the South. Granted, Clinton’s Arkansas origins and Tennessean running mate strengthened his hold in Dixie, but they weren’t the clinchers. Instead, matters of personality and economy pushed him over the top. Of course, Clinton had more than his share of personal problems, but he had the charisma and poise that undecided voters often fall for during the debate season. In addition, he appeared responsible for America’s renewed prosperity during his first term. This potent combination earned him victories in a number of traditionally borderline states such as Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, and West Virginia, the seven of which together possess a large number of electoral votes. Four years later, when Senator Al Gore attempted to feed of Clinton’s success, he lost all seven of these hotly contested states, and as a result, the election, as well.

Now that Kerry appears destined to carry the Democratic banner into November, he appears to be better off than Gore but in not quite as favorable a position as Clinton’s. Still, if he plays his cards right, he can carry at least a few of the borderline states, which may very well be enough to pull off an upset that very recently seemed virtually impossible.

When he focuses on beating Bush in states that the president captured in 2000, Kerry will need to beat Dubya at his own game. He will need to shift attention from the issues that Bush will attempt to emphasize -- social matters like abortion and gay civil unions, the hopelessly obscure concept of patriotism, and the “successful” overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to name a few -- since it is unlikely that the moderate New Englander will be able to gain leverage on such issues in the South, especially when pitted against a conservative Texan. Instead, Kerry should spend his time expounding on his national experience (two decades in the Senate), illustrious military service, and poised demeanor. Though these qualities are not necessarily paramount, they often command a disproportionately large amount of voters’ respect.

Meanwhile, Kerry should pound away at Bush, criticizing the president’s economic failures, rather than those associated with his foreign policy. While blasting Bush’s foreign policy could swiftly and completely alienate the significant fraction of voters who are uncompromisingly pro-American and constantly “patriotic,” an economic attack would be far more effective. Not only would it appeal to a far larger segment of the voters in borderline states, but it would take away the potential for critics to harp on Kerry’s original support of the Iraq war.

Just a few months ago, Bush’s public support seemed so high that any Democratic candidate would likely need a risky and radical approach. Recently, however, with the a host of American deaths in Iraq, a less than rapid economic recovery, and a series of damning accusations against the current administration’s handling of intelligence information before Sep. 11 and the war in Iraq, Bush appears susceptible to an upset. The weakening of the president’s position has provided Kerry an opportunity to win the election with a moderate rather than radical political gameplan. And a moderate approach based on character and the economy instead of the polarizing issues of foreign policy is exactly the type of approach that could carry Kerry to success in crucial competitive states.