Public opinion polls suggest the November election between President Bush and his presumed Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, will be close. Even though the election is still more than seven months away, the two candidates are engaging one another earlier and spending more money at this stage than in any recent campaign for the White House.
Historically, general election campaigns for the presidency begin in early September, well after the party nominating conventions that decide the Republican and Democratic candidates for president.
But this year everything seems earlier than usual. Senator John Kerry's early success in the Democratic primaries allowed him to focus on the man he will run against in November, President Bush.
“If the president wants to have a debate a month on just one subject and we go around the country, I think that would be a great idea,” Sen. Kerry said. “Let's go do it.”
The president has also been mentioning Senator Kerry in his speeches, focusing on the Massachusetts Democrat's long record in the Senate and what Mr. Bush calls a history of switching positions on several issues.
At the same time, the president is traveling the country, touting his record on terrorism and national security and promising an improved economy, including more jobs.
“And we will remain the leading economy in the world because America will remain the best place to do business in the world,” Mr. Bush said.
There has also been an upsurge in television advertisements on behalf of both candidates.
The president's re-election committee has started with ads emphasizing the positive aspects of the Bush record. But later ones are expected to be critical of Senator Kerry.
“President Bush - steady leadership in times of change,” says one Bush ad.
The Kerry campaign has far less money to run ads of its own. But political groups sympathetic to Senator Kerry and the Democratic Party have begun running ads critical of the president in an attempt to even out the playing field.
“President Bush - remember the American dream. It's about hope, not fear,” says a pro-Kerry ad.
Republicans complain that the ads attacking the president are illegal because they violate the new campaign finance law that prohibits political parties from coordinating with private groups on political advertising.
Most political experts see this as simply the tip of the iceberg in terms of negative political attacks and advertising this year.
If the election is going to be as close as the polls suggest, both parties are expected to spend a lot of money and effort urging their core supporters to get out and vote in November.
“Most of our evidence suggests that negative ads which candidates run do seem to influence voters and they certainly do hold the base [of a candidate's support] and get out the base [encourage them to vote],” says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “So, if I'm right that you really want to generate the base of each party, then each side will launch pretty nasty ads against the other side.”
Another challenge for both candidates will be appealing to the relatively small group of undecided or 'swing' voters who make up their minds in the final stages of a presidential campaign.
Tom Defrank is the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News and a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program. He says U.S. presidential elections tend to be a referendum on the incumbent, a fact that the president's re-election team is well aware of.
“They [Bush campaign] understand that and that is why it is important to them that Osama bin Laden get captured. That is why it is important for them for the turnover of authority in Iraq to go as scheduled on June 30,” he says. “It is important for them that the economy continues to improve because all those things will help or hurt President Bush, depending on how they sort out.”
But the length of this campaign could be a problem for both candidates. A number of experts warn that a general election campaign stretching nearly eight months could turn off voters as much as engage them, making it more important than ever that the two major parties encourage their voters to get to the polls on election day.