Bush's self-confidence may be Kerry's best bet tonight

Watching President Bush on the stump the past few weeks makes clear why he leads this race going into tonight’s debate, and will probably still lead it tomorrow.
Watching President Bush on the stump the past few weeks makes clear why he leads this race going into tonight’s debate, and will probably still lead it tomorrow.

It is Bush the messenger that resonates with a majority of voters, not the Bush message. It is his confidence on the stump, not his administration’s performance in Iraq, that is winning the support of swing voters in key states.

Last week, Democratic nominee John Kerry finally focused his message into a coherent attack on Bush’s policies in Iraq. He said that the war was one of choice, that there was no plan for the turmoil that would follow and that Bush had lost the ability to bring allies to the task of rebuilding a stable Iraq. Kerry argued that the Iraq misadventure created a breeding ground for terrorism and that America was less secure than before Bush misled the nation to war.

A majority of Americans pretty much agree with that. A majority (sizable in some polls) believe the war was not worth fighting. Yet those same voters trust Bush to finish the job in Iraq and wage the war on terror.

It is not that voters don’t agree with Kerry’s message. It is that they don’t have the confidence in the messenger that they do in Bush. Even swing voters who disagree with his policies see Bush as a strong leader. He takes clear stands on issues. He sums up his positions in short, memorable sound bites. He delivers his lines again and again with a casual confidence and wry smile that makes it seem as if he just thought of that latest zinger. (I’ve seen news clips of Bush saying that Kerry “could probably debate himself for 90 minutes.” In three different venues. Each time, it seemed that he’d just thought of the line.)

Bush is a polished performer. He knows how to learn his lines. He knows how to stick to them. He won’t wander off message unless something unexpected forces him there. He doesn’t ad-lib very well, but he is great with a script.

The tight structure of the debate tonight favors his style and his strengths. The president will be well-prepared and carefully rehearsed. He’ll stick to the lines that have undermined support for Kerry throughout this campaign. No matter what his opponent says, what rhetorical questions he raises, we can expect Bush to respond with a smile, a shrug and one of his key message points.

Kerry faces a tough challenge tonight. He must somehow shake the wishy-washy, flip-flopping image the Bush campaign has successfully put in voters minds. He must demonstrate that he, too, has the strength and commitment to lead the nation.

And he must make himself not just knowledgeable but likable and connected to real people.

Kerry has the right message, he just needs to morph himself into a more sympathetic, trustworthy messenger. That is a tough assignment.

Kerry’s best hope may be that Bush overplays it just a little. Sometimes, on the stump, Bush’s confidence borders on cockiness. Sometimes that wry smile turns a little smug. Within the tight structure of these debate rules, Kerry would do well if he can nudge Bush in that direction.

The chink in Bush’s armor is that his self-confidence could be dangerous. Kerry should argue that the president is steadfastly committed to whatever the policy of the day is, whether it is WMD, removing Saddam, building democracy or turning things over to the interim government.

No matter how the goal changes, Bush says we are close to success. Most Americans don’t believe that to be true. Kerry must “expose” Bush as a leader who refuses to change his policies but is happy to change the rationale for them. He must portray the president as one who will confidently but blindly lead us into more danger.

The point is, Bush is not holding a narrow lead because most Americans like his message but because they trust the messenger. Kerry can’t win this debate, or this election, unless voters change their minds on Bush.

Turning perceptions of the president’s confidence into bullheaded stubbornness may be the best way for Kerry to do that. It is a difficult challenge in this debate environment, and it will take some help from Bush’s attitude on stage to do it. It would not be the first time that a debate was lost, not won. That may be the best the Kerry team can hope for.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com