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Inside Politics

Campaigns kick into high gear

By Judy Woodruff
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- While some Americans greet Labor Day with picnics and barbeques, presidential candidates traditionally see Labor Day as the kick off of their intense fall campaigns.

This year, the intensity level has been high since March, but there is a new urgency as the calendar turns. Over the next 56 days, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry faces the challenge of shifting his message in the face of new political polls showing President Bush inching ahead just days after the close of the Republican convention.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday shows Bush ahead of Kerry 52 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, the first time Bush has exceeded 50 percent.

Proof that the Republican convention was a success?

Possibly, and according to Keating Holland, CNN's polling director, the slight boost in Bush's support is not the only effect of the Republican convention. The number of Americans who believe the war in Iraq was a mistake dropped 10 points -- 48 percent to 38 percent -- since the last full week of August. And Republicans, for the first time this year, are more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats, a sure sign that the convention has mobilized the GOP base.

These results help explain why Kerry has begun to fine-tune his campaign message and add senior level staff to his team to build momentum.

As CNN's Congressional Correspondent Ed Henry reported Monday, senior Democrats feel Kerry needs to shift the talk "from Vietnam to bread and butter issues." Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, told The New York Times that Democrats had a "very confused message in August and the Republicans had a very concise one."

It appears that Kerry is heeding their advice. Monday, the senator focused on the economy and healthcare while campaigning in West Virginia. Kerry also sought advice on how to reinvigorate his candidacy from former President Bill Clinton during a telephone conversation from Clinton's hospital bed Saturday as he awaited cardiac surgery.

Yet, Kerry and his campaign staff were quick to say their campaign is very much on track. When I interviewed former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, now senior advisor to the Kerry-Edwards campaign, on Monday, he said, "We acknowledged that in the last phase of the campaign we were going to focus on economy. But, we love the advice, it should keep coming."

The Bush-Cheney campaign is not immune to charges it lacks clarity either. Over the weekend, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, told The Washington Post, "The Republican Party has come loose of its moorings...I think you've got a party that is in a state of uncertainty."

With such a close race, the economy could play a larger role in the coming months than it has so far. The Bush-Cheney campaign is still challenged by its economic record: on average,104,000 new jobs a month were created, lower than the 216,000 new jobs the president's own Council of Economic Advisers forecast in 2004.

When I interviewed CNN analyst Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times on "Inside Politics" Monday, he said, "The unavoidable job for the challenger is to make the case for change." Jay Carney, deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine, agreed this is a tough assignment. But more likely, both candidates will be victims or beneficiaries of things beyond their control, Carney told me.

With the death toll for American troops in Iraq approaching 1,000, and just 56 days until the election, this remains true for Kerry, as well as for Bush.

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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