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Modest gains in the message war

Despite Bush and Kerry's attempts to define each other, the war and 9/11 capture attention.

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Weeks of intense politicking and millions of dollars in ads have helped the Bush campaign make some headway in its effort to define Sen. John Kerry as a liberal waffler who's weak on defense.

But even more important has been the dominance of external events, which have created new and unexpected challenges for both candidates. The violence in Iraq and the furor surrounding the 9/11 commission hearings has made it far more difficult for Mr. Kerry to break through with messages on the economy and other issues, or to put out his own biographical sketch.

Yet all the commotion may also have diluted some of Mr. Bush's attacks on Kerry. The result: Polls show the overall contours of the race remaining tight several months into the campaign, with the president recently regaining a slight edge.

The president holds a narrow lead over Kerry in the latest Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post polls, both of which had Kerry leading throughout February and early March. Bush has also improved his edge over Kerry on issues like Iraq and terrorism, while reducing Kerry's advantage on the economy.

In a memo to reporters, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd argued that the campaign "has been successful at defining the race," noting that in focus groups swing voters have described Kerry as indecisive and likely to raise taxes.

And indeed, some shifts can be attributed directly to attacks from the Bush campaign: After weeks of portraying Kerry as flip-flopping on issues, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found only 4 in 10 voters see Kerry as someone who "takes a position and sticks with it," while 8 in 10 have that view of Bush. Likewise, the percentage of voters regarding him as honest and as a strong leader both dropped by some 10 points.

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