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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 September, 2004, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Campaign column: Kerry's new focus

By Tom Carver
BBC correspondent in Washington

John Kerry had it all worked out. A decorated war hero against a Texan gunslinger who had bungled the first war he had chosen to fight.

Kerry in Greensboro, North Carolina
Kerry wants the campaign to focus on domestic issues such as the economy
A year ago, John Kerry was dreaming of a presidential debate in which George Bush wilted under Mr Kerry's encyclopaedic knowledge of the world.

But the Yale frat boys have given him a severe awakening. Like Al Gore, John Kerry appears to have badly underestimated George Bush's raw talent for the campaign fight.

John Kerry was lulled into making Vietnam the centrepiece of his character, only to find himself running for cover under withering sniper fire from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Then along came the Republican Party, and with all the grace of an abattoir, sliced and diced his character at their Convention and spat him out 10 points behind in the polls.

It is certainly not pretty but it is very effective.

At least that is how it looks from the back of the circle.

Back from the dead

John Kerry can come back - the amazing thing about politics is that people do return from the dead. And this week, the greatest Lazarus of all had some useful advice for Mr Kerry.

From his pre-surgery hospital bed, Bill Clinton passed on two pieces of advice to the embattled Senator: 1. Focus on the economy. 2. Elections are about the future not the past.

"He always felt that you've got to give people a reason to vote for you and give people a choice," one of Bill Clinton's former aides told the Washington Post.

"He believes that at the end of the day that if you do make it an effective choice for the voters, they'll figure it out. But the burden's on the candidate to make the case."

W stands for wrong - the wrong direction for America
John Kerry, Democrat presidential candidate
Iraq's currency as a political weapon is declining.

Even when seven soldiers died in one attack this week, the story was crowded out of the front pages by other news. Americans, always keen to move on to the next thing, are running out of outrage over Iraq.

And at their convention, the Republicans neatly folded Iraq into the War on Terrorism, an area where Bush has a significant lead over Kerry.

If most Americans ever realised that the present unrest in Iraq was caused by Mr Bush and his decision to invade, they have probably forgotten it by now.

To them, Moqtada Sadr and co have merged with Bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Mohammed Atta and the others.

Focussing on the right issues

The economy, however, offers a much more fruitful line of attack for the Democrats.
Dollar bills
The Congressional Budget Office predicts a $2.3 trillion (1.2 trillion) deficit between 2005 and 2014

One senior Republican acknowledged to me this week that the White House was preoccupied with the size of the budget deficit and the ballooning cost of the Medicare programme that they pushed through Congress.

Karl Rove knows very well that both are marks of shame among Republicans and that many Republican conservatives are very disappointed in Mr Bush's big government habits.

This week, John Kerry finally got round to these issues.

"Only George W Bush could celebrate over a record budget deficit of $422 billion, a loss of 1.6 million jobs and Medicare premiums that are up by a record 17%," Mr Kerry told a crowd in Greensboro, North Carolina.

"W stands for wrong - the wrong direction for America."

Now he just needs to keep on this message for the next two months.

Americans want to know, quite understandably, what Mr Kerry would do for them if they gave him the job. He has managed to convey very little so far about what kind of a president he would make. Describing what you did 35 years ago does not go very far.

But attacking Mr Bush's economic record could help voters to get a better idea of what he would and would not do.

The economy may not be John Kerry's first love or his greatest strength, but it may be the only thing that can save him from defeat.

Previous campaign columns:

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