GWEN IFILL: August on the campaign trail. John Kerry nursing a small lead in the polls took a few days off. He returns to the hustings tomorrow.
But President Bush, rolling up his shirt sleeves, is on the trail, building toward his nominating convention in two weeks. The campaign themes remain the same: War, security and the economy.
And much of the argument is being played out on television in key battleground states. Sen. Kerry's ads, paid for by the Democratic Party, have focused on President Bush's economic credentials.
TELEVISION AD: Millions of good jobs lost the plant closures and outsourcing, yet President Bush protects tax breaks favoring corporations that move their headquarters overseas. America can do better.
GWEN IFILL: President Bush's ads target Sen. Kerry's security credentials.
TELEVISION AD: John Kerry promises...
SEN. JOHN KERRY: I will immediately reform the intelligence system.
TELEVISION AD: Oh, really? As a member of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Kerry was absent for 76 percent of the committee's hearings.
GWEN IFILL: Both candidates are competing for the same narrow slice of undecided voters, and many of them are on vacation, too.
GWEN IFILL: And joining us now to sort out the latest from the campaign trail is Adam Nagourney, chief political reporter for the New York Times.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Gwen, how you doing
GWEN IFILL: I'm doing pretty well. We've been watching all of this back-and-forth, this toing and froing between President Bush and Sen. Kerry.
Tell us, what is important?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, you know, you wonder right now how much of it is important, how many people are really paying attention.
This is the most active August I can remember in a really, really long time, between the ads and between the sheer activity, even with Kerry on vacation for a couple days, it's still pretty remarkable.
For Bush, you know, we're sort of like at two edges of the tide here, right? Kerry is sort of coming out of his convention and is trying to solidify whatever advantages he might have gained in Boston at the end of July, and Bush I think is now setting the table for his own convention coming up in New York in two weeks.
He's doing it by... I mean, he said he was going to do it by talking about what he would do in a second term as president.
And I guess there has been some of that. But I think there's probably been a little bit more of the old slashing of Kerry over these past couple of days.
GWEN IFILL: Has President Bush seemed more aggressive to you in these last few weeks?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: He's seemed more active to me in terms of campaigning. You know, he's literally been on the trail almost every day. In terms of more aggressive, he's been in his campaign, has been strikingly aggressive since March 3, or so when Sen. Kerry became the effective nominee of the Democratic Party.
If anything, that's accelerated the intelligence ad that you guys referred to in the piece before; that is pretty sharp stuff.
I mean, that's the kind of stuff that you wouldn't really expect to see until October, which makes you wonder, like, what's still out there.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we've also heard so much from the president about the very consistent... from the president and the vice president, about John Kerry's consistency or lack thereof, about his flip-flopping.
Is there any evidence in the polls or anywhere along the road work it seems that's taking root, where that's working?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Absolutely. I mean, if you were to ask me, you know, the White House... the Bush-Cheney campaign spent approximately $80 million on advertisements through the spring.
And the one thing that I think those ads clearly accomplished was to make voters begin to wonder how consistent Kerry is on a variety of issues. I would add that Kerry might have helped the White House along with the - I voted for $87 billion and I voted against it - and, you know, in answer to his remark about funding for soldiers in the field.
And even, I guess, last week when he was asked whether or not he would have voted for the original Iraqi resolution knowing what he knew now, he answered yes, the Bush people have certainly been able to try to make that as further evidence that Kerry can be a little bit back and forth on issues, fairly or not; I'm not sure it is in that case.
GWEN IFILL: Sen. Kerry obviously had a few weeks after his convention where he was traveling the country by plane, train, automobile, beautiful pictures, good coverage.
But he's been out of sight for the last few days, not obviously pushing back against some of the president's criticism. How is he altering or is he altering his approach?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: He has not yet. I mean, there's some concern among Democrats that he did not push hard enough back on this Iraqi stuff.
I think they came out of the convention feeling they did a pretty good job, not a great job, but a pretty good job. And they were always anticipating this would be a period of sort of standing back a bit. But, I mean, there's a lot of Democrats who think that he needs to push back on some of this stuff.
The intelligence, you know, the missed votes thing, that's an interesting question.
I've covered a lot of campaigns where missed votes have been tried as a line of attack. And it's not always effective.
It might be in this case because voters will think, oh, my God, he missed Senate Intelligence Committee hearings when they were talking about Sept. 11.
But, you know, this is a very weird year. Things that have worked before or seemed to have worked before have not worked so far to the frustration I think of the White House, to tell you the truth.
GWEN IFILL: We have watched the way these candidates have been hop-scotching around to the battleground states, the purple states, as they are called, where the undecided voters all are supposed to live.
What's their travel schedule... what do their travel schedules tell us about their strategy?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: I think it tells you all you need to know, really. I mean, it's like the campaigns can tell you whatever they want about what they consider in play and where they're competitive; watch A where they go and B where they spend their money.
And if you look at maps, I think the Times looked at one this week, and you just watch. They're going to all the same places, I mean, it's Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and it's Oregon, New Mexico, and it's Nevada, and it's Arizona. And they just keep going back to the same places.
And when campaigns raise the possibility that other states might be in play, states for example-- the Republicans talking about New Jersey or Kerry even talking about North Carolina, I mean, that's all well and good.
Let's watch and see how much time the candidates spent in those states. Answer: None.
GWEN IFILL: The other interesting thing, we show a lot of these candidates talking in town meetings, Republicans mostly, and we see the Democrats, John Kerry and John Edwards spending a lot of time in what they call front-porch discussions, I guess, and they all take great pains to look very casual and very engaging.
How casual are they?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, the ads President Bush - I mean, they're casual, but they're certainly not what I would call spontaneous. That's a very, very screened crowd.
That's a crowd of Bush supporters and I've covered a couple of them. It's fair to say that you don't hear the kind of questions that might be difficult or problematic. It's a chance... I think it's a chance for the president to sort of relax and talk and show his campaign skills, which, you know, might have been forgotten over these past four years. Kerry's -- or the front porch events with Kerry are slightly less controlled.
I mean, they're -- obviously the Kerry people picked where those events are held. They pick some of the people that are there. Some of the people that get in there are also independent and are not necessarily committed voters.
I think for Americans watching these two events, you mean, you might find them interesting, you get some insight into the personality of the candidates, and you might even pick up an interesting segment about where they stand but do not watch them thinking that you're watching them as a spontaneous example of interaction between American politicians and voters.
GWEN IFILL: But if you measure these events as ways to get local headlines, get on the air at local television stations and speak directly to those voters who are trying to make up their minds, how successful have they been?
ADAM NAGOURNEY: Huge. It's huge. They get incredible, incredible coverage. The Kerry people have kept a book of the newspaper coverage they were getting in particular.
Obviously it was a myriad of television coverage, and it was extremely, extremely positive and extremely focused on him talking to people and, you know, he's -- sort of very casual, intimate episodes.
The president always gets good coverage, very, very intense coverage wherever he goes. These - President Bush I think sort of always takes the edge off of him as being sort of institutional or presidential in a good way.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be watching, as I'm certain you will, as well. Adam Nagourney, thank you very much.
ADAM NAGOURNEY: A pleasure.