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Inside Politics

Stay tuned for another swing in the campaign

John Kerry may enjoy a little September resurgence
Kerry has begun to toughen his attacks on Bush and is succeeding in generating more conversation about issues.
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CNN's Carlos Watson on new poll results.
Carlos Watson
The Inside Edge
America Votes 2004

NEW YORK (CNN) -- August was a good month for President Bush. He took a lead in both national and key state polls -- including even in Democratic-leaning Iowa. But expect John Kerry to enjoy a little September resurgence.

Two weeks ago, Kerry appeared to be politically moribund and any kind of resurgence was beginning to seem unlikely. But the media loves a good fight and has begun to shine a more critical light on the new campaign frontrunner: President Bush.

On top of that, Kerry has begun to toughen his attacks on Bush and is succeeding in generating more conversation about issues -- including the assault weapons ban, jobs, Iraq -- and less about his past.

Weekly swings in momentum are common at this stage in a campaign. In 2000, George Bush and Al Gore swapped the lead at least four times in the final two months.

It is also common to see Labor Day leads shrink dramatically in presidential races or even disappear. That has happened four times in the last 60 years including in 1948 (Thomas Dewey), 1968 (Richard Nixon), 1976 (Jimmy Carter) and 1980 (Jimmy Carter).

Bush is likely to build on his August momentum and keep John Kerry off balance through sharp speeches and ads -- as well as through Congress. The Republican-led Congress can help the president steer the national political debate in one direction or another.

As Congress returns to session this month, they may try to help the president by focusing on tax cuts and homeland security. The president also will offer an olive branch to the evangelical Christian base when Congressional leaders raise the same-sex marriage ban again.

Though he is part of the minority party, a shrewd John Kerry also could use Congress as a helpful political ground. Imagine if he went to the floor (in Jimmy Stewart or Spencer Tracy fashion) to offer a powerfully symbolic piece of legislation -- for example, a balanced budget amendment to highlight the deficit issue or sweeping homeland security and veterans benefit legislation.

There is no chance the legislation would pass this year. It probably would not even get a full hearing in the Republican-dominated legislature. But if the plan were meaty and offered enough new elements, it could get big ink in local media in swing states around the country. And that kind of media buzz -- as the Swift Boat controversy proved -- can be worth its political weight in gold.

Keep your eyes open

This year's presidential election is already under way. While most of us focus on November 2 as Election Day, in North Carolina and several other states, absentee ballot voting starts this month.

Absentee ballots matter. In Iowa in 2000, Bush won among voters who went to the polls on Election Day. But when absentee ballots were added, Bush lost Iowa to Gore by approximately 4000 votes.

In 2000, roughly 1 of 7 votes was cast by absentee ballot. In 2004, as many as 1 in 5 voters may vote by mail, including 100 percent of voters in Oregon and more than a third of voters in such key swing states as Washington and Arizona.

The Bush and Kerry camps as well as independent political groups may spend as much as $20 million on absentee ballot efforts this year -- more than most Senate campaigns cost.

So while Kerry has time to regain a lead in the polls, Bush's current strong poll position could translate into some extra cushion for his campaign come vote counting time.

New roles, new players

Do not be surprised to see new voices emerge in the final days of this campaign. The 2004 political stage already is unusually crowded with a wide range of people besides the major candidates influencing the debate and the race.

Among the voices who have had an impact are first lady Laura Bush, retired Gen. Tommy Franks, film maker Michael Moore, former Bush counterterrorism chief and author Richard Clarke and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

If national security experts, authors and filmmakers have played the biggest supporting roles so far, do not be surprised to see former presidential candidates play a big role in the final days. Bill Clinton, you're thinking? Maybe the first President Bush? Sure to both of those -- even with Clinton's recent ailments.

But more than those two, the name that may surprise you the most is Ross Perot. Ever willing to share an opinion and with lots of money and time still on his hands, do not be surprised to see the two-time presidential candidate go after another Bush on the deficit issue and trade (outsourcing) -- remember Perot's charts and his "giant sucking-sound" references.

While his credibility is not what it once was -- he was the second most successful third party candidate in presidential history with 19 percent of the vote in 1992 but fell to 8 percent of the vote in 1996, Perot still can attract a camera and could be an unwelcome surprise for President Bush.

Next week, in contrast, I'll tell you about another unexpected player who could help Bush and hurt Kerry in the final days.

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