Playing not to lose
    by Gene Lyons

As the presidential campaign drifts through the August doldrums, President Bush
appears to be playing not to lose. In sports, the phrase is used to criticize teams
that play too timidly. In politics, it means waiting for your opponent to make a blunder.
As the incumbent, Bush is conducting one of the oddest campaigns in American history.
Because he can’t easily run on vanishing jobs, humongous budget deficits and the mess
in Iraq, or say much about the future, what’s he going to promise, bigger tax cuts?

Bush preaches to the converted at invitation-only events limited to campaign volunteers,
congregations from conservative churches and people willing to sign party loyalty oaths.
Anybody wearing a John Kerry T-shirt is hustled off the premises. Avoiding the national
press, he holds so-called "Ask President Bush" sessions at which preselected voters toss
him verbal bouquets. Miss America contestants face tougher cross-examination. In the
aptly named Niceville, Fla., one fellow announced, "I’m 60 years old and I’ve voted
Republican from the very first time I could vote. And I also want to say this is the very
first time that I have felt that God was in the White House."

Blessedly, Bush did appear uneasy with the notion he might actually be God, cleverly
diverting attention to his brother, Jeb, the Florida governor. When a woman in
Beaverton, Ore., asked him to pray for the state because of its high proportion of
"unchurched" citizens, Bush awkwardly reminded her that "people can choose church
or not church, and they’re equally American." Thank God for that.

Besides avoiding skeptics and collecting warm fuzzies, such rallies hold another
advantage for Bush: Slimy insinuations by GOP dirty-tricks ops like the Swift Boat
Veterans for Truth come from other people’s mouths. Also at Beaverton, Bush took
a question from a guy, who claimed to have served six tours in Vietnam, who
questioned Kerry’s Purple Hearts. "We’ve got a candidate for president out here
with two self-inflicted scratches," he said, "and I take that as an insult."

Actually, Kerry earned three Purple Hearts during his second tour in Vietnam and
carries shrapnel in his leg. Bush, whose own Pentagon records show no evidence
he drilled with his National Guard unit in 1972, had a swell chance to repudiate the
Swift Boat calumnies paid for by Texas Republicans, contradicted by voluminous
military records and publicized by Merrie Spaeth, the widow of his 1994 gubernatorial
running mate, the late Tex Lezar. "Thank you for your service," he said. "Six tours?
Whew. That’s a lot of tours."

If Bush had a rock band, he could dub his campaign the "No Class" tour and sell
T-shirts. Which, come to think of it, illuminates his dilemma. The purpose of Bush’s
restricted-access events is to generate feel-good images on local TV. But ask anybody
who’s seen the Rolling Stones live if it was more stimulating than an HBO concert.
There’s a visceral excitement at live campaign rallies that can’t be matched by TV.

To prevail, Bush needs to win over voters who didn’t support him in 2000 or didn’t
vote at all. Campaigning in his own traveling White House Rose Garden won’t get it done.

Meanwhile, the Kerry-Edwards duo are drawing large, volatile crowds. It’s not news
that Democrats are energized, but the big turnout may tell more about the race’s
momentum than Kerry’s steady climb in "swing state" polls.

Even Kerry’s convoluted speaking style may be turning to his advantage. Two recent
attempts by Bush and Dick Cheney to portray him as a "flip-flopper" may have
awakened a slumbering press corps. From inside the bubble, Bush claimed that
Kerry had voted for the Iraq war, morphed into an "anti-war" candidate, then flipped back.

But a careful analysis by Slate’s Will Saletan showed that Kerry’s stance hasn’t changed:
It was right to give the president authority to threaten force to make Iraq admit United
Nations arms inspectors, wrong of Bush to alienate U.S. allies and stampede to war.
On MSNBC’s "Hardball," Chris Matthews confronted a Bush spokesman with repeated
showings of a video clip GOP imagineers had twisted to distort Kerry’s meaning. If that
kind of journalism becomes trendy, Bush may have to appear at country clubs only.

Meanwhile, Cheney went on rightwing talk radio to mock Kerry for backing a more
"sensitive" war on terror. Laughing, he said, "It strikes me the two words don’t really go
together, sensitive and war. If you look at our history, I don’t think any of the wars
we’ve won were won by us being, quote, ‘ sensitive. ’" Same show, minutes later:
Why weren’t U.S. troops storming the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf where Shiite militiamen
are holed up? "Well, from the standpoint of the shrine," Cheney said, "obviously it is
a sensitive area, and we are very much aware of its sensitivity."

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.

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