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Sunday, June 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bush ads barely affect views of Kerry

By Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg
The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — When Sen. John Kerry effectively nailed down the Democratic presidential nomination March 2, the White House was waiting. With relentless precision, it began a 90-day campaign to weaken Kerry's candidacy, a blast that included record spending on television advertisements and attacks on Kerry's credentials and ideology.

The Republican spring offensive — unusual in its early timing, its toughness and President Bush's decision to engage his opponent personally so far before November — effectively ends today, as the Bush campaign suspends its broadcast television advertising until next month.

Three months and $85 million after Bush began, pollsters and independent analysts said he had raised doubts about Kerry, but had not scored as much damage as some Democrats had feared.

Kerry is viewed more negatively by voters than he was March 3, and Bush appears to have succeeded in planting doubts about the firmness of Kerry's convictions, according to polls. But they also show Bush and Kerry tied, while Kerry continues to be viewed more favorably than not.

Democrats seem more confident of victory than they did when Bush's attack began in March, all the more so as Kerry has eclipsed Bush in fund raising over the same period.

"I don't think anyone can look at this data we've released and say Kerry's a candidate who's been trashed and discredited," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Bush's advisers said they were satisfied with their offensive. They noted that it had diminished Kerry's brief lead and argued that it planted seeds of doubt.

Still, they acknowledged that their intricate effort to portray Kerry as an untrustworthy advocate of high taxes, defense cuts and liberal values had been complicated by the turmoil in Iraq and the Sept. 11 commission hearings.

Rudy Boschwitz, a former senator from Minnesota and one of Bush's top fund-raisers, said that "outside influences on the campaign are such that it's hard to make an evaluation of whether the money has been well-spent or poorly spent." But he did acknowledge that there were questions about the strategy.

The state of play does not appear to be the result of any particular expertise by the Kerry campaign, or of mistakes by Bush. Rather, it reflects the extent to which both campaigns have been whipped by events beyond their control, and the challenges of trying to influence opinion at a time of turmoil and voter polarization.

If Bush's advertising has had less of an impact than some Republicans might have wanted, Kerry's campaign, which began in late April, has not appeared to produce the kind of shifts in opinions that some Democrats might have wanted, though some outside analysts credit it with at the very least undoing some damage done by Bush's campaign.
And, as Bush's aides noted, the unexpectedly high expenditures by Kerry, combined with television spending by independent liberal and Democratic organizations, outpaced Bush's spending, suggesting the two had advertised themselves into a standoff.

"I don't think the Bush people had a bad strategy," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant. "I just don't think it worked out. The strategy got overwhelmed by current events and Kerry opting out of the campaign-finance system."

Bush's senior campaign strategist, Karl Rove, argued that these events had in the end not undermined the White House strategy, because the turmoil in Iraq did not begin until about a month after the ad campaign began.

"Yes, it affected it," Rove said. "But we were running television at a time when people were open and receptive to what was going on — and that had a big impact. The impact was that on March 2 or thereabouts, Kerry's positives were significantly higher than they are today, and his negatives were a lot lower than they are today."

A poll last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 50 percent of those surveyed had favorable impressions of Kerry, down from 58 percent in February, while 41 percent had unfavorable views, up from 28 percent.

Democrats argued that much of the increase in the number of people who said they had an unfavorable view of Kerry was among Republicans who did not know him early on and never were going to vote for him anyway, as opposed to truly wavering voters.

Kohut described the finding as unremarkable. The ratio of people who view Kerry positively to those who view him negatively, he said, was typical for challengers at this point, better than that for Bill Clinton in June 1992, slightly worse than that for Michael Dukakis in May 1988.

"Public opinion of (Kerry) is more typical of that of other presidential candidates," he said. "On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be a lot of blood on the floor, either."

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