John Kerry’s not even on the ballot. So how come everyone is talking about the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee’s failed attempt to make a joke at the expense of George W. Bush’s education — or lack thereof?
Because media coverage of this campaign, at least in its final days, is going according to Karl Rove’s script — thanks in no small measure to the inability of most political reporters to chart their own course on the eve of an election.
Rove needs the focus to be on Kerry.
The White House political czar is fully conscious that the Republican base — social conservatives, people who don’t want to pay their taxes and angry white men with an exceptionally narrow view of what it means to be a patriot — has been trained to despise and fear the Massachusetts senator in a way that there just is not enough time to gin up hatred for Nancy Pelosi or any other Democratic “infidel” of the moment.
With Rove shifting the entire Republican pre-election push toward a base-energizing initiative that relies almost entirely on stoking disdain for Democrats, he’s got to get people focused on Kerry.
Rove has seen the polls. He knows that the base is shaky. Republican House candidates are stuck in close races not just in the classic swing districts of suburban Philadelphia and south Florida — where folks who actually voted for Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 are represented by vulnerable Republicans — but also in contests in Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Nevada and other states that voted overwhelmingly for Bush in both of his presidential runs.
To avoid the election of a House — and perhaps a Senate — that might have substantial enough majorities to hold the Bush administration to account for its actions, Rove has shifted the Republican focus toward a number of competitive Senate and House contests in the interior west, where large numbers of Republican base voters have grown disenchanted enough with the party to consider Democrats.
Republican money is being pulled out of high-profile Senate races in Ohio and Pennsylvania — where it costs a fortune to maintain a media campaign in multiple markets — to the smaller states of the west where it is possible to get more bang for the buck. And the biggest bang comes from scaring base voters back into the Republican camp.
Hence the Kerry message.
That’s why, well after the story had run its course, Bush and Dick Cheney were still talking about it on the campaign trail.The president and vice president are incorporating lengthy riffs on Kerry’s comments in their stump speeches. And they are being steered into states that don’t usually experience White House visits on the eve of an election.
The Republicans focusing particularly hard on Montana, where populist Democrat Jon Tester has led scandal-plagued Republican Senator Conrad Burns for most of the fall. Tester’s been helped by the broader Democratic trend in the west, and particularly in Montana, as well as the incumbent’s verbal stumbles and extensive links to convicted influence-peddler Jack Abramoff.