John Kerry's domestic focus seems to be too little, too late

As the campaign enters its final week, it settles into the pattern that events have preordained from the outset. President Bush is pushing terror as his key issue, while Sen. John Kerry focuses on everything but.

Indeed, Kerry put this contrast into sharp perspective in Pueblo, Colo., last Saturday, when he said that Bush “keeps going around the country trying to scare people. He talks about only one thing; the only thing he wants to talk about is terror, the war on terror, national security.”As the campaign enters its final week, it settles into the pattern that events have preordained from the outset. President Bush is pushing terror as his key issue, while Sen. John Kerry focuses on everything but.

Indeed, Kerry put this contrast into sharp perspective in Pueblo, Colo., last Saturday, when he said that Bush “keeps going around the country trying to scare people. He talks about only one thing; the only thing he wants to talk about is terror, the war on terror, national security.”

Kerry went on to say that we needed a president who could focus on more than just one topic.

For his part, former President Bill Clinton has drawn the dichotomy between the two as a choice between fear of terror and hope for a better country, saying that voters should select someone who offers hope, not fear.

This election is not between two men or two parties or two ideologies. It is between two issues, vying for supremacy. Do we want a wartime or a peacetime president? Are we at war or are we at peace?

To underscore his focus on terror as the key issue, Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media creator, has produced a magnificent ad featuring wolves closing in on America while the announcer recites the intelligence and defense spending cuts that Kerry supported during his Senate tenure.

In the stillness and stealth with which the wolves close in and the calmness that pervades the scene as they prepare to strike, the ad captures eloquently the juxtaposition of times that seem to be normal but are really fraught with danger.

The wolf ad deserves a place in the lexicon of great negative advertisements right next to Tony Schwartz’s exploding mushroom cloud while a little girl picks petals off a daisy in 1964 and the ringing red phone that Walter Mondale used to doom Gary Hart in 1984.

The advertisement — and Bush’s pounding away at the terror issue on the stump — have combined to give the president a lead in all major polls except for one that shows a tie and another that gives the edge to the Democrats.

But, as his party did in 2002’s congressional elections, Bush is taking the lead as the election nears.

Voters understand, after all, that Sept. 11 is the defining event of our times and that the war on terror is not one issue, it is the issue.

Kerry’s advisers have finally realized that they cannot beat Bush over terror and are, at last, hitting on the right strategy, which is to push domestic issues. But to be effective, they needed to lay the basis for this focus in the weeks and months that are past.

To argue that rising healthcare costs, limited coverage of health insurance policies or an economy that still has an unemployment rate of only 5 percent and change are the major issues and that terror is an obsession is to doom oneself to irrelevance.

Kerry needed to prepare the ground for his domestic policy stance by warning of danger to the Social Security trust fund or of the impending bankruptcy of Medicare.

Only by creating an imminent sense of threat could Kerry plausibly make the case that these domestic issues have about them the requisite sense of urgency. But he failed to make that case, and now he is left pushing second-tier issues, while Bush has the primary question — avoiding a repeat of Sept. 11 — to himself.

The conventional wisdom is that the election will be close. It still may be, but the evidence suggests that it is volatile but not necessarily close as we oscillate between the fear of terror and relief at the return of normalcy.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.