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Where's Kerry's Bounce?

Why didn’t John Kerry get a bounce coming out of the Boston convention? That's a question that Republicans and Democrats answer very differently. Candidates usually get some kind of bump in the polls after they are nominated, and many observers agree the Democrats had a successful convention. It was super disciplined, tightly scripted, with more uniforms, flags and references to strength, service, and patriotism than a Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering. Former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama of Illinois, among others, made the case for John Kerry’s candidacy more ably than Kerry himself. As for Kerry’s speech, while it didn’t have any soaring poetry, memorable lines, or bold new proposals, it managed to communicate an energy and optimism that many voters had not seen before from the Massachusetts senator.

Still, most post-convention polls show very little movement for Kerry, and one -- the well-respected CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll -- had Kerry’s numbers dropping in a matchup against President Bush during and after convention week.

Talk to the Kerry campaign and they will say they predicted this. Before the convention, Kerry pollster Mark Mellman released a memo saying that because the electorate was so evenly divided and that large majorities of voters were locked in to their presidential choices at an early date, there would be no substantial post convention bounce. That might have been just an effort to lower expectations. Or it might be true. Regardless, the Kerry campaign was happy to point to something else in the post-convention polls supporting its argument that Kerry DID succeed during his time in Boston: more and more voters were convinced that he has the leadership qualities needed to sit in the Oval Office. Kerry gained ground on Bush when voters were asked who can better handle the war on terror, who is better able to keep the country safe, and who they trusted to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief. All of these are important criteria for voters deciding who they want to be president.

But it is still hard to spin a non-existent bounce into a positive thing. Republicans, who had tried to raise expectations for Kerry by predicting (with a straight face) a 15-point bounce, said the tiny gains showed that Kerry failed to convince undecided voters to support him. Bush pollster/chief strategist Matthew Dowd got in a dig, saying the numbers proved that having Kerry talk unfiltered to the American people is at best neutral and at worst negative.

As soon as Kerry left Boston, Bush was back on the campaign trail, showing off some of the powers an incumbent has that a challenger can never match. Case in point: the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Kerry has been looking for ways to demonstrate the differences between himself and Bush on terrorism. He thought he had one in the commission’s recommendations, which he embraced wholeheartedly. He attacked the president for dragging his feet on the reforms needed to keep the country safer. While it is true that Bush resisted the creation of the commission and tried to keep his top officials from testifying before it, as soon as it became clear that delaying implementing the recommendations was a political liability, the administration sprung into action. Bush announced with much fanfare in the Rose Garden that he, like Kerry, backed the creation of a national intelligence director. In doing so, he took that part of the debate off the table.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.