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.

But Rove and the other Republican strategists have decided to make a stand in the Big Sky state. Bush and Cheney are being dispatched to the state, as well as to other western states where the GOP is betting that a final push against Kerry and “elite” Democrats will save enough seats to hold the Senate and perhaps the House. Cheney was in Montana Wednesday, talking at great length about Kerry — “Of course, now Senator Kerry says he was just making a joke, and he botched it up,” the vice president announced in Kalispell. “I guess we didn’t get the nuance. He was for the joke before he was against it.”

Bush will pick up the line of attack today, when he too visits the state.

Why Montana?

The fight for control of the Senate really is close. Count on Democrats to hold every seat that is now in their column and to pick up Republican seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. There are decent chances for Democrats to pick up another Republican seat or two in the highly-competitive and much-talked-about races of Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee — although it now appears that Democrats are wavering on whether to remain in the Tennessee fight after their candidate, Harold Ford, slipped in several polls.What this all adds up to is the prospect that Democrats could expand their Senate caucus to 49 seats on Tuesday. But to get to 50, where they can demand the equal position on committees that is key to organizing hearings and investigations, or even to 51, where they can control the chamber, they need Montana.

Montana Democrats have figured out how to win as western populists and outsiders, such as Governor Brian Schweitzer. They don’t run to the right — Tester’s for bringing the troops home from Iraq and against the Patriot Act — but they do run against Washington insiders. And they don’t want to be linked to Kerry and other Democrats who are portrayed as east-coast elitists. The same goes for surging Democratic House candidates in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska and other states — whose victories would give Nancy Pelosi not just a bare majority but room to move as the Speaker of a Democratic House.

Tester, one of the most well-grounded and genuinely impressive of the new crop of outside-the-beltway Democrats, is in Rove sites. He’s fighting back with everything he’s got. And he’s still a good bet to win. But, bet on this, Rove, Bush, Cheney and the entire Republican spin machine will be doing everything in their considerable power to hang John Kerry around Jon Tester’s neck. It’s not fair to Kerry, whose comments are being taken out of context. It’s not fair to the political process, which ought not be focused on such silliness at so critical a point.

But no should expect Karl Rove to play fair. And, unfortunately, no one should expect most political reporters to recognize that, by again helping to swiftboat John Kerry, they are working from Rove’s political playbook.


John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at