A baseball team ahead on Labor Day usually wins the pennant. Presidential elections aren't necessarily that way, but with opinion polls showing a convention-bounced George W. Bush gaining a significant lead, last week the Kerry campaign showed signs of panic.
The polls, ephemeral though they are, made headlines because they suggested, like offensives at the end of World War I, a break from political trench warfare. Time and Newsweek both had the president up 52 percent to 41 percent by Labor Day weekend, and the Gallup poll showed the president with a 52 percent-45 percent advantage.
Democrats responded with fight or flight. The flight school included Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who seemed to be predicting John Kerry's impending loss as he knocked his candidate's "very confused message." San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ferai Chidaya watched part of the GOP convention with liberal friends, discovered that none expected Mr. Kerry to win, and concluded that "Kerry's base, uninspired and dispirited, is weakening."
The fighting course, though, seemed more popular within the Kerry camp, which underwent a shakeup. Mr. Kerry added Clinton aide Joe Lockhart and Dukakis advisor John Sasso. He also increased the role played by advisers Paul Begala and James Carville, both CNN commentators who will continue working for the network while working informally for the Massachusetts senator.
Bill Clinton himself played a role. In a 90-minute phone call from his New York hospital bed, the former president told Mr. Kerry to stop talking about Vietnam and focus on his domestic agenda. Increasingly strident Democratic appearances reflected the "influence of Mr. Clinton and his advisers," according to The New York Times.
The refurbished Kerry style was soon on display, as Reuters reported: Mr. Kerry "assailed Bush's record, repeatedly telling a Labor Day rally the 'W' in Bush's name stood for 'wrong-wrong choices, wrong judgment, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country' on everything from jobs to Iraq."
While Mr. Kerry stumped, other Democrats laid the groundwork for negative campaigning throughout September and October by arguing that Republicans had started it. Liberal pundit Harold Meyerson wrote in The Washington Post, "The Bush family studied and learned from the Nixon playbooks; the hallmarks of their campaigns against Michael Dukakis, John McCain, and now John Kerry have been slander and lies."
Former Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich said, "You have to fight fire with fire, mud with mud, dirt with dirt. The trouble with Democrats, traditionally, is that we're not mean enough." Ms. Estrich laid out what that means: a "long and ugly road" to November, since "millions of dollars will be on the table. And there are plenty of choices for what to spend it on." She suggested it was time once again to trawl for Bush scandal, as a porn publisher did four years ago: "As Larry Flynt discovered, a million dollars loosens lips. Are there others to be loosened?"
Ms. Estrich particularly promoted Kitty Kelley's The Family (Doubleday), a book that is scheduled for Sept. 14 publication and that includes allegations lurid enough to "make Michael Moore look like a factual documentarian," according to White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett. Still, the book will have an initial printing of 750,000, and Ms. Kelley is scheduled to appear on network talk shows.
Less-hysterical journalists reminded readers that Mr. Kerry often comes from behind. In a story about his 1996 Senate victory over challenger William Weld, the Los Angeles Times quoted political scientist Paul Watanabe arguing that Mr. Kerry is "at his best when he's cornered. . . . Putting him in that fighting mode is key." The Kerry campaign in 1996 broke a promise to limit campaign spending and ran commercials linking William Weld to Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, two Southern senators with whom the liberal Mr. Weld had little in common.
Much could still change: An economic downturn, a debate gaffe, or a new terrorist offensive could alter election equations. Columbia journalism professor and columnist Sheryl McCarthy, writing in Newsday, tried to be optimistic. She wouldn't mind a little outside help-even bad news from Iraq-if it would get Mr. Kerry elected: "It's even possible that some momentous event-another scandal in Iraq, for instance-will turn the tide for Kerry."