President Bush was feeling back in the game as Air Force One headed to Cleveland last week. Just that morning, aides had put the final polish on a new speech, in which Bush would make his first full run at what his team calls the economic-isolationist policies of John Kerry. After months of being pounded by the Democratic candidates, "the President was really fired up," says Representative Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who joined Bush for a private pizza lunch in his airborne office. Once considered solidly Republican, Ohio is now up for grabs in the presidential election, thanks to its having lost more than 250,000 jobs in the past three years. But Bush had dived into his internal Ohio polls, and he reassured LaTourette that the water was fine. "My numbers are great," Bush told the Congressman. "I'm going to connect with those people. I do care about them and their situation." To top it all off, Bush had a surprise in store. That afternoon he would finally nominate someone to fill the new job of manufacturing czar, which he had announced in another Ohio speech six months before.
What the President didn't know was that at that moment, Kerry's campaign was planning a surprise of its own. Tipped off by Democrats on Capitol Hill that the appointment was in the works, Kerry's staff had quickly done a LexisNexis search on the proposed nominee, Anthony Raimondo, and discovered that the Nebraska manufacturing executive laid off 75 U.S. workers in 2002 while building a $3 million factory in Beijing. That might make it awkward for him to champion keeping jobs at home. Two hours before the Commerce Department was scheduled to announce Raimondo's nomination last week, the Kerry campaign did it for them. A day later, Raimondo had withdrawn his name from consideration, and Team Kerry was chortling about how difficult it had been for the White House to create even one new job. Sighed an Administration official: "It's clear these guys are pros and they know what they are doing."
It's not even spring yet, and the presidential campaigns are running at a pace you don't normally see until after Labor Day. "It's not just rapid response," said a top Bush campaign official. "It's rapid response six times a day." At a point in the cycle when candidates would normally be quietly raising money and giving little-noticed policy speeches before nodding partisans, both campaigns are running negative television ads in 16 battleground states, and Bush has them up in two additional ones as well. The debate over debates, another fall ritual, has already started, with Kerry calling for monthly ones and the Bush team saying he should figure out his own positions on the issues first.
Kerry, perhaps accidentally, gave voters an inside glimpse of the heat of the race last week when he made a comment to Chicago factory workers that was picked up by a microphone. "We're going to keep pounding," he said, and added that his Republican attackers were "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen." Not only are the professionals playing a vigorous game, but the voters are watching intently. In a survey by Republican pollster Bill McInturf and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, 63% of Americans polled said they were following the race more closely now than in October of the past two presidential contests.