Bush vs. Kerry: Suiting up for a nasty brawl

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The 2004 presidential race looks certain to be one of the most brutal electoral battles of all time, as the campaign teams exploit enmity between the parties and a growing marketing weaponry to swing votes their way and keep existing supporters motivated.

"This is an Armageddon election," said John Zogby, president-CEO of pollster Zogby International. "It's highly polarized, highly impassioned and there is a tremendous amount of anger on both sides," he said. "The impact is less to persuade and more to get out your base and to remind them who the enemy is and why they have to vote."

Normally in February 15% to 20% of voters are undecided and another 10% to 20% are wobbly. This time only 5% to 7% are undecided and 10% wobbly.

Mark McKinnon, head of President Bush's Maverick Media ad team, agreed earlier this year that the campaign won't be for the faint of heart. "Four years ago the campaign was fought in the trenches," over basic issues, he said. "This time it will be fought at 50,000 feet," over polarizing matters such as war.

Steve McMahon, who created ads for Howard Dean as part of Trippi McMahon & Squier, said two years ago Republicans won upsets in two key Senate seats by using the campaign's final hours to focus on their support base, rather than to independents. He suggested recent steps taken by the White House on issues such as gay marriage and guns foreshadow a similar strategy this year.

"You can see it in a strategy of the White House appealing to its base as hard as they can, to make everything black-and-white instead of gray. They are hoping to increase turnout among true believers."

The first ads from the Bush campaign carry a "steady leadership in times of change," theme. In one Mr. Bush says he is "optimistic about America." Another pictures a scene from the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack that included firefighters, prompting some families of victims of the attack and some firefighters to complain. (The firefighters union has endorsed Mr. Kerry.)

internet games

While the ads, part of its estimated $100 million pre-convention spending, are generally positive, in one Mr. Bush blames the Clinton administration for the economy. Campaign officials said they are ready to also draw clear distinctions with Mr. Kerry, but said no final decision had yet been made on how that would be accomplished.

However, the post-Kerry-victory attacks by the Republicans have already started and are employing the medium that is expected to be used to communicate some of the most aggressive negative messages-the Internet. On March 5 the Republican National Committee unveiled a "Kerry vs. Kerry" interactive Internet game intended to show Mr. Kerry had contradicted himself on certain issues.

Both campaigns will use the Web to reinforce support and raise funds, but while the Internet offers greater potential for vitriolic attacks-candidates don't have to appear and endorse Web ads as they do on TV-it has a considerably smaller audience.

While political experts expect the campaign to include numerous comparison ads on TV, they caution that campaign-finance law changes will limit their number.

The law curbs party ads that were a major font of attack ads four years ago. But it also bars independent groups-which created many of the negative ads last election-from mentioning or picturing Mr. Bush after July 31. The Bush and Kerry campaigns themselves could take over the attacks, but a requirement that the candidate be pictured endorsing each campaign ad could make them a little more wary.

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