America - Andrew Stephen fears Kerry has already blown it

The Bush camp has managed to turn Kerry into a figure of fun before the Democratic candidate has got

Has John Kerry already blown it? There are more than seven months to go to the presidential election, but Kerry's first three weeks as the confirmed Democratic candidate were more disastrous than is generally perceived. He tires easily, and after a draining 15-month primary campaign, he has let his tiredness show in ways that could yet prove fatal.

It is hard to believe that a politician with 32 years' experience could present the Republicans with such a gift as saying of the Iraq war budget: "I actually did vote for the $87bn - before I voted against it." But Kerry managed to say exactly that. In a rambling way, he then implied that he had been in touch with foreign leaders who said they want him to win against Bush - but, on being pressed, was unable to name a single one. For his much-needed break, he then very publicly chose to stay at Sun Valley, Idaho, in a multimillion-dollar house that belongs to his mega-rich wife. There, he was immediately photographed taking a spill from his snowboard when he collided with a secret serviceman, whom he then dismissed with an expletive.

Not a good start for a man who will need to run a flawless campaign to beat Bush in November. First impressions count, and Kerry was not well known in America until he became the Democratic candidate. Before first impressions were formed across the country, he fell right into a series of traps laid by the Republicans. They want to portray him as a feeble flip-flopper, and he then gave them a perfect soundbite to illustrate his flip-floppiness. They want to show he is weak on foreign affairs, and he got himself into a terrible tangle in just that area. They want the electorate to see him as out of touch and aloof, and he chose to go to his wife's luxury mansion where he was rude to a man trying to look after him.

What makes all this worse for Kerry is that it happened in the most vulnerable weeks for him. The Bush campaign has $158m to fire advertisement after advertisement at him at a time when he has only just become able to raise big money for himself. In the fortnight since Kerry was confirmed as the Democratic candidate, the Bush campaign spent $20m on a shock-and-awe, anti-Kerry television blitz in 18 states. Kerry could respond with only $2m worth of ads. In their ads, Bush's advisers have come up with fast bombardments of anti-Kerry soundbites - "wrong on taxes . . . wrong on defence" - while the Kerry team has struggled with fewer and much poorer ads that do not come close to matching the Bush ones for slickness and viciousness.

Worse still for Kerry is that the Republicans have managed to turn him into a figure of fun; the late-night talk shows, which are watched much more than the news programmes, have started joking about his flip-flops and his snowboarding mishaps. The Bush team has put out a mocking internet movie depicting Kerry as an "international man of mystery" - part of the plan to define him as a man who will do the bidding of the UN and foreign leaders - while a Washington Post writer has jeered at him for "looking French".

I was in Florida when Bush's television blitz started and his ads were, I thought, stunningly effective - if unpleasant and dishonest. Florida, as a state that must be won in November, is one of the 18 where the Republican advertising has been in full spate. Bush himself flew into Florida on 20 March in full campaign mode. He told a crowd of 10,000 that, as a senator, Kerry has voted 350 times for tax rises - because Kerry has been a politician for so long, Republicans can pore over his statements and voting record and come up with such nuggets. Bush told the adoring rally: "He's going to tax all of you. Fortunately, you're not going to give him that chance." While Kerry was still resting in Sun Valley, with polls beginning to show that Americans think he says what they want to hear, the Bush team looked more than ready to dive enthusiastically into battle. The Republicans thus hope they are already defining Kerry to the American people before Kerry knows what has hit him. This was a tactic Bill Clinton used very successfully against Bob Dole in the 1996 election - as president, he had tens of millions to spend on anti-Dole advertising while Dole was still groggy and relatively poor from the primaries. By June that year, Clinton had all but won re-election.

The Republicans did the same - defining the opposition candidate, sometimes with outrageous unfairness, before he managed to define himself - to achieve their landslide election victories against George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In 1972, for example, amid protests against the Vietnam war, McGovern was successfully portrayed as an anti-war wimp - when he was, in fact, a decorated Second World War pilot. Yet his opponent, Richard Nixon, had no combat experience, in effect, just like Dick Cheney (who won five deferrals of military service) and George W Bush. The Bush-Cheney campaign none the less believes it can emasculate Kerry's record as a Vietnam war hero by hammering on about how he campaigned against the conflict after he returned home. Kerry's undeniable heroism in the Mekong Delta will thus be airbrushed away and, as McGovern was, he will be defined as an anti-war hothead. Cheney has already attacked Kerry as being unimpressive, "for someone who aspires to become commander-in-chief at this time of testing for our country".

After Kerry's good start, polls show that he is already slipping against Bush and is not especially popular among even hardline Democrats. He won the nomination because Democrats believed he was the best candidate to defeat Bush. He is certainly not a man with a loveable or magnetic personality, and I have lost count of the people who have told me that he does nothing for them.

But it is far too early to predict the outcome of an election that could easily not be decided until the final days. And however shaky Kerry has been looking, the Bush campaign has plenty to worry about as well: for example, Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism adviser who served both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and who has accused the latter of ignoring warnings about al-Qaeda before the 11 September 2001 atrocities. His claims came at just the wrong time for Bush, since the Republicans want to run largely on the image of a strong president who acted decisively. The independent inquiry into 9/11, which is also likely to be critical of the Bush administration, is due to report on 26 July - the opening day of the Democratic convention.

The biggest hazard the Bush team faces, however, is that swing voters will be turned off by the very bloodthirstiness of its anti-Kerry blitz. Americans do not like their presidents to launch such down-and-dirty campaigns, especially so early. New laws require candidates to say personally, in each campaign ad, that they support what it says and, to many, it seems unseemly for their president to be lashing out.

But, so far, Kerry has not shown sufficient toughness or judgement for a battle in which blood has been shed earlier than in any previous US election campaign. He has not blown it yet, but will do so if he does not soon wake up to the furious onslaught already being waged against him in the swing states of Middle America.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The power of martyrdom