HOW SHE SEES IT The election: It ain't over till it's over

WASHINGTON -- Just before the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan closed his only debate with President Jimmy Carter by asking Americans, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
That simple question crystallized the election. A week later, voters responded by handing Reagan a surprise landslide victory.
The incident tells us a couple of things worth remembering as we head into the fall campaign. It ain't over till it's over. And, whoever best frames what this election is about to voters -- particularly the few who remain undecided -- likely will win.
Both President Bush and John Kerry have plenty of answers, but so far neither has found The Question of 2004.
To be sure, the better-off question is implicit in any incumbent's bid for re-election. Voters have to decide whether to renew Bush's contract for another four years or give the job to Kerry. Democrats cite chapter and verse about all that's gone wrong since Bush was elected, while Republicans make the case that Kerry lacks the right stuff to be president.
A sliver of likely voters seems to be leaning toward Kerry, but we haven't yet had the Republican National Convention, which starts Aug. 30, the debates or, possibly, an October surprise. And where's Osama?
Last week, ABC News' well-regarded online political newsletter "The Note" declared that this election was Kerry's to lose. The next day, though, the newsletter came back with a dozen good reasons why Kerry could lose.
It quoted an unnamed Democratic strategist saying of Kerry and his running mate John Edwards, "No one knows what their message is. 'Complex and layered' isn't necessarily enough." And that's from a friend.
Bush plans to lay out proposals for his second term at the convention. For now, Bush and Cheney are using ridicule to undermine their opponents.
Last week, Bush scorned as "a new nuance" Kerry's statement that he would have voted for authorizing the war in Iraq even though no weapons of mass destruction were found.
Chief antagonist
Cheney evidently has been "tasked," as they say in Washington, as Kerry's chief antagonist. Cheney came down hard on Kerry's remark that we need a "more sensitive" war on terror.
"America has been in too many wars for any of our wishes, but not a one of them was won by being sensitive," Cheney said. "President Lincoln and General Grant did not wage sensitive warfare -- nor did President Roosevelt, nor Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur. A 'sensitive war' will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans and who seek the chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands more."
The Kerry campaign objected that Cheney had taken Kerry's words out of context and twisted them.
Here's what Kerry actually said in an appearance before minority journalists in Washington: "I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history."
The Kerry campaign even dug up a couple of Bush quotes in which he used the S word.
There's nothing new about politicians distorting their opponents' words or positions, but one wonders how far demonizing the other guy can go before it backfires.
We may be about to find out. The name-calling is getting worse.
In this election between two rich white guys, a conservative group is running ads on black radio stations in inner cities calling Kerry "rich, white and wishy-washy."
Another of the ads says, "His wife says she's African American. While technically true, I don't believe a white woman, raised in Africa, surrounded by servants, qualifies."
Undecided voters could be turned off by such talk, if they're listening. An undecided voter last week told me he had watched none of the Democratic convention and probably won't watch the Republicans' convention in New York.
"I just don't want to listen to all those spin doctors and lies," he said.
He said he doesn't see much difference between Kerry and Bush.
Is he better off than he was four years ago? He'll decide that later.
X Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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