America - Andrew Stephen fears it's too little, too late for Kerry

Kerry has run a woeful campaign so far, failing to counter even when unfairly attacked. After the wo

The moment I realised Bill Clinton would beat President George H W Bush in the 1992 presidential campaign came in Seattle, at some unearthly hour like 8am. Clinton was holding an outdoor rally that had attracted thousands. An anti-Clinton dirty tricks scandal had erupted overnight - I can't remember exactly what it was but, recalling that campaign, I suspect it was something to do with bimbos - and what impressed me most was that Clinton already had a clever rebuttal, coming out slugging at Bush for all he was worth. His press team, too, was already handing out material featuring Clinton's counter-attack.

The result? The first President Bush was doubtless still finishing his stately breakfast while the Clinton team was landing a punch for that day's news bulletins. Clinton was able to slug away like this throughout the 1992 campaign because he had an energetic "war room", run 24 hours a day by the likes of James Carville and Paul Begala and countless volunteers high on caffeine and anti-Bush animus. Besides his own monumental energy, Clinton was able to call on an unending stream of campaign answers, challenges and attacks to assail Bush that the war room had provided.

This year's presidential election, however, is enough to make strong Democrats weep: this time it is Bush II who has the war room, and has had it running on full steam since the beginning of March. I wrote then that Kerry, despite having been the presumptive Democratic candidate for only three weeks, might already have blown it: that is now being widely suggested in the media here. Kerry is only now getting round to setting up a war room - and he needs it, desperately. He has run a woeful campaign so far, failing to counter-attack even when he is unfairly attacked. He is incapable of saying things in the pithy soundbites of a winning candidate. In short, he is already looking like a loser.

Presidential election campaigns do not normally begin until September, but this year's is the earliest to start in history. Bush has been running effective anti-Kerry television ads in a $58m blitz since March, while Kerry spent just $17m over the same period and has been delivering long and often confusing perorations which fail to engage the enemy. The result is that, in the worst three months of his presidency, Bush is still running neck and neck with Kerry in the polls. Worse news still for the Kerry campaign is that in the 17 crucial swing states - Gore, after all, won the popular vote in 2000 but lost in the key states - Bush is mostly ahead of Kerry.

This, in fact, might well prove the most crucial month of the whole campaign for both candidates. While Bush goes on a bus tour of battleground Midwestern states, Kerry is belatedly opening his war room and committing $27m to running anti-Bush TV ads in 19 states. The Democrats are stepping up their campaign to send, to each Bush rally, three campaign people dressed up as Pinocchio (to depict Bush as a liar), a chicken (to draw attention to his avoidance of the draft) and a mule (to show his stubbornness). But Kerry has a maddening ability to come over as aloof, unwilling to stoop to the down-and-dirty Bush-Cheney campaign. He would apparently rather rely on sandwiches and bottled water carried around for him by his personal travelling valet - and I'm not making that up.

It defies belief, for example, that the Bush-Cheney team has managed to call Kerry's Vietnam service into question when he was the one who won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his bravery in Vietnam. Bush meanwhile was supposedly carrying out his highly questionable service with the Texas Air National Guard, asking specifically not to be sent abroad. And while Kerry was dodging rocket-propelled grenades in the Mekong Delta, Dick Cheney applied for no fewer than five deferments from the draft, once explaining he had "other priorities" at the time.

Yet in a particularly vicious speech in Fulton, Missouri, Cheney managed to call Kerry's commitment to national security into question. The ensuing discussion became so twisted that Kerry, who is still walking around with shrapnel in his body, found himself defending his first Purple Heart against claims that he had not been sufficiently wounded to merit it. Then he had to explain that he had not thrown away his medals in 1971, as other Vietnam returnees did, but just the ribbons that went with them. The Bush-Cheney team had managed to turn Kerry's great campaigning asset - his heroism in Vietnam - into a liability.

The anti-Kerry advert that has been running relentlessly since March also calls into question his commitment to national security, describing it as "troubling". The ad castigates Kerry for having "voted against body armour for our troops". This sounds bad until you learn that the vote was a tiny part of Congressional cuts in the mid-1990s, when, with the cold war over, there was bipartisan agreement on cutting military budgets. Cheney, as defence secretary in 1990, cancelled production of the M1 tank and Bradley fighting vehicle, as well as making cuts in the production of the F-18 jet fighter. But it does not matter whether the dirt being thrown at Kerry is true; it is all grist to the Bush-Cheney mill if they can destroy his reputation. They have succeeded in defining Kerry as a flip-flopper who cannot be trusted to run a war, and a liberal (that dreaded word) who would raise taxes by $900bn, a figure that just seems to have been dreamt up.

But Kerry must take the blame for his appallingly late start in waking up to the realities of the campaign. He calls himself an "entrepreneurial Democrat", apparently unaware that significant sections of the electorate will not know what that means. Clinton repeatedly preached "opportunity, responsibility, community" in 1992, while Kerry meanders that "citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights, and . . . all Americans have a duty to give something back". Not the sort of 20-second soundbite required. It is now fashionable to say that Kerry has a serious "likeability" problem.

Kerry has so far singularly failed to delineate clear differences between himself and Bush, and at times he can be his own worst enemy. He gets himself into needless trouble, such as denying he owned an SUV, until reporters pointed to the Kerrys' Audi Quattro. He then explained this away as belonging not to him, but to his wife. He has failed to capitalise on what is happening in Iraq, too, by saying he would bring in the UN and Nato the very week the Bush administration said the same. In swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio there is so far little sign of any Kerry regional campaign offices. Bush had an office going in Ohio, the most crucial state, in January.

The Kerry camp is meanwhile cheering itself up by saying that Bush-Cheney has spent $58m on ads - compared, until this month, with Kerry's $17m - just to stay even in the polls. They also say Kerry is a great one-on-one debater, which will help the nation turn to him after the presidential debates in the weeks before the November election. Yes, this month will be crucial in the 2004 election: you could well make it yet, Senator Kerry, but so far I am afraid you have been a grave disappointment.