Why? Because with an administration that has failed so supremely in almost every policy endeavor it has undertaken, the challenger should be coasting to a massive landslide victory in November.
The situation in Iraq, already seemingly as bad as it could get short of all-out civil war, keeps getting worse by the week. Iraqis, like good-hearted people everywhere, have been shocked and appalled by the images of Americans torturing prisoners in the very jail Saddam Hussein used to terrorize his own people for decades. This has led to even more widespread hatred of the U.S. occupation, further endangering the lives of more than 125,000 American troops and millions of Iraqi civilians.
Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army still controls large sections of Najaf and Karbala, and Fallujah remains violent despite the withdrawal of U.S. Marines, who were replaced by an Iraqi force led by one of Hussein's former henchmen.
There is now incontrovertible evidence that terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is running amok in Iraq, as he was seen butchering American civilian Nicholas Berg on a videotape posted to an al Qaeda-linked Web site. Had the Bush administration not completely failed to dismantle al Qaeda's international terror network after (or before, for that matter) the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Berg might have lived to see his 27th birthday. At least according to his murderers, Berg would still be alive if Americans hadn't tortured their Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Everything has gone wrong with this ill-conceived war since before it started. Yet its chief architect, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, still has his job, at least for the time being.
Back home, just as the economy seemed primed for a real (as opposed to jobless) recovery, gas prices soared to all-time highs, threatening to inflate prices of all the goods and services that involve anything being transported anywhere.
Kerry should be trouncing Bush in the polls after such an impressive string of complete failures, but he isn't. For their part, the Democrats worry that Kerry hasn't yet established a message or theme for his campaign. In fact, the problem seems to be that Kerry's message sounds too much like Bush's.
On Iraq, both want to internationalize the occupation. Bush speaks of the United Nations, Kerry mentions NATO, but the reality is that the American occupation appears doomed to failure and the only way out of the war Kerry voted for is likely to involve getting every last American out of the country. The only power in the world that could step in to prevent the vacuum and bloodshed that would result if the U.S. cut and ran is the United Nations, and getting it involved will likely include begging, pleading and paying for the whole operation ourselves.
On health care, which Robin Toner of The New York Times called the policy that most strongly highlights the differences between the two major candidates, Kerry talks the talk, but his platform falls apart under scrutiny. His Web site claims that his plan would cover 96 percent of all Americans, but he offers only buy-in options and tax credits, not universal single-payer coverage. Under his plan, a single woman earning $16,000 a year would pay "only" $1,200 yearly for insurance. For most such people, even that lowered cost would be out of reach, making the 96 percent figure sound like the number who would theoretically have access to insurance -- not those who would actually have coverage.
On these and other issues, Kerry has failed to offer America and the world the dramatic change of direction we require and has therefore failed to rally the voters behind him.
Meanwhile, the Reform Party has endorsed independent candidate Ralph Nader, offering him ballot access in seven states. They include Midwestern battleground Michigan and election 2000 bugaboo Florida. While this might not be enough to scare Kerry into trying to bring Nader and his small army of supporters under the umbrella of the Democratic campaign, it could have an impact on the other end of the political spectrum.
The Libertarian Party's convention is scheduled for the end of the month in Atlanta. Nader's career of fighting for increased consumer protection is surely anathema to the free-marketeering Libertarian rank and file. But his affiliation with the Reformers might just make him appealing to the small slice of "conservatives" who are revolted by the sleazy image Clinton gave the Democrats but see through the current administration's dissembling and prevarication. A small slice of the people who voted for Perot rather than George H. W. Bush in 1992 might have gone Libertarian this year just to avoid voting Democratic or for the incumbent.
While any crossover effect will almost surely be very small, the fact that such a prominent national figure is affiliated with the party of that other wealthy Texan, H. Ross Perot, further limits the importance of whatever might transpire in Georgia next week.
On the other hand, it places added importance on the Green Party's convention next month in Wisconsin. While Nader appears determined to stay independent, his former party could decide to back him, turning out its supporters to help him campaign and get onto ballots.
With all that said, the current situation brings to mind a high-stakes poker analogy: Bush is bluffing; Kerry has a strong hand but won't bet into it; and Nader, the wild card, is still lurking somewhere in the deck.
Joshua C. Robinson writes monthly about the presidential campaign for CityBeat.