It is now clear from several polling sources that the Republican National Convention has catapulted George W. Bush into the lead in the presidential race, though how big a lead is in dispute. Bush's rise had begun before the convention, but New York solidified his momentum.
The new campaign dynamic takes the form of both better public perceptions of Bush and worse perceptions of Kerry, and is owed to a fundamental weakness in the Kerry campaign. That weakness is the degree to which Kerry has staked nearly everything on his biography, as opposed to his political record (which he virtually ignores) or his issue positions (which are too incoherent to drive a campaign). Indeed, no candidate has depended on biography more since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.
This strategy has left Kerry vulnerable in two ways, and those vulnerabilities have now been exploited. First, since he staked so much on biography, he was in a highly exposed position if any part of his biographical narrative came into question. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth succeeded in raising such questions.
Second, since Kerry set aside record and issues, he was vulnerable to Republican efforts to define his record and the issues for him. The Republican convention filled this vacuum. It defined the election around national securitya thrust which Kerry actually aided by spending so much effort on establishing his credentials as commander-in-chiefand exposed Kerry's record as that of an indecisive and soft Massachusetts liberal. While much media commentary has treated this turn of events in purely tactical terms, as a sequence of Kerry blunder and Republican opportunism, it should not be seen that way. Rather, it is indicative of Kerry's fundamental problem, which is that he could not plausibly run on his record or the issues if he wanted to. His focus on biography was selected only partly because portions of his biography were deemed appealing, but largely because he had little option.
Now that he has lost his lead and the power of his biography has been undercut, it is not clear where he goes from here if he wants to win. Certainly not to his Senate record, which is both undistinguished and (Ted) Kennedyesque. On issues, unless there is drastic deterioration in the next two months, he will do no better than fight Bush to a draw on the economy. Barring dramatic disaster, Iraq will likewise give him no clear edge, both because the public perception of the war has improved and because his own position is incoherent. This leaves terrorism, an issue that Bush owns.
This is not to say that it is impossible for Kerry to recover. At this time four years ago, Republicans were despairing over Al Gore's convention-driven five point lead, which persisted for over a month before Bush turned the race around again. However, Kerry is facing an uphill battle. He will undoubtedly try to "reinvent" himself, but unless done with great finesse such an exercise will only ratify the prevailing view of him as lacking a solid core. He could, as many in his party have advised, get meaner, but it is unclear how much marginal benefit he can expect from that approach. After a year of constant and vicious bombardment by the likes of George Soros and Michael Moore, as well as Kerry himself, Bush is largely inoculated against attack at this stage. And Kerry is unlikely to be able to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the debates to change the dynamic. On the other hand, events could intervene against Bush, Bush himself could blunder, and Kerry can count on the elite media to pull out the stops on his behalf. What this means is that Kerry might yet win but, like the Raiders who can only make the playoffs if the Bills beat the Broncos on the last day of the season, his fate is no longer in his own hands.