In the final push, President George Bush and his opponent Senator John Kerry are saying more about less.
With the presidential election only days away, they have sharpened their differences over a handful of issues that matter most to voters: Iraq, terrorism, health care, Social Security and jobs. But sometimes what they are not – or no longer are – saying is equally revealing.
Heard anything lately from Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney about Osama bin Laden? No, and you’re not likely too, either. Nor do they say much about continuing chaos and violence in post-war Iraq.
At first they didn’t say much about the theft of explosives in Iraq, either. But when it flared into a top issue this week, Bush and Cheney sought to turn it against Kerry by arguing he was jumping to conclusions.
Kerry doesn’t talk about low inflation, low interest rates or the 1.7 million jobs that have been restored since the summer of 2003. Bush doesn’t mention soaring oil prices, declining consumer confidence or net job losses on his watch.
Kerry’s Vietnam experience as a decorated Navy officer – the centrepiece of the Democratic National Convention – is rarely brought up by the candidate himself these days, except in general terms.
It’s been a long time since Cheney suggested Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for that country’s needs or since Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards made the kind of positive comments that suffused his primary campaign.
Issues still matter. But in the closing days of an unusually long and bitter campaign, leadership skills and character also count for a lot.
“The presidential debates telescoped the issues into Iraq and the war on terror, the economy and jobs, and what I call a bundle of values issues. Guns and gays sort of thing,” said Stephen Cimbala, a political scientist at Penn State University.
Most other issues have been lost in the fierce crossfire of charges and countercharges over Iraq and the war on terrorism.
Kerry has cast Bush as a reckless and arrogant commander in chief whose mistakes in Iraq have made Americans more vulnerable. Bush has portrayed Kerry as too weak-willed to deal with the terrorist threat.
At this stage, the candidates’ use of issues has largely strategic significance.
For instance, Kerry, a Roman Catholic once reluctant to discuss religion, has begun to talk openly about the importance of faith in his life – a move intended to mobilise religious black voters, particularly in Florida.
Bush’s characterisation of Kerry as a tax-and-spend Massachusetts liberal is less about federal fiscal policy than about revving up the Republican base. Likewise, Kerry’s suggestions that Bush would revive the military draft and undermine Social Security were meant to energise supporters and win over young and older, elderly swing voters.
Sometimes, voters only have a sketchy idea of where the candidate they support stands on many issues, especially secondary ones, suggested Larry Bartels, a Princeton University political scientist.
“If I think the candidate is a good guy, I imagine that he has positions on issues that are very similar to my own. If I think he’s a bad guy for some reason, I think his positions are wacko, regardless of what he’s actually saying about where he stands,” said Bartels.
Bush never mentions two initiatives announced months ago with much fanfare: giving temporary legal status to illegal immigrants and sending astronauts to Mars. The Mars mission was a non-starter, especially among Republican deficit hawks. And easing immigration restrictions also troubled Bush’s conservative base.
Kerry now treads lightly over his service as a decorated Navy lieutenant in Vietnam. He mentioned it in talking about being sustained by his faith, and frequently says he defended the country as a young man and will again as president. But he didn’t raise the subject at all in a recent major foreign policy speech in Iowa.
Anti-Kerry ads by groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accusing him of embellishing his Vietnam service have lessened the political value of his war record.
And the controversy over CBS TV’s airing of a piece challenging Bush’s military service in the Air National Guard – with what appears to have been forged documents – made it harder for Democrats to challenge Bush’s service record effectively.
Recent polling by The Associated Press found that national security issues - the war in Iraq and terrorism – are dominating voters’ attention in the campaign’s final days. They were followed by economy-jobs and health care on a list of the nation’s most important problems.