After months of attacking President Bush's policies, Sen. Kerry is stepping up an assault on his rival's character, challenging Bush's credibility on everything from job creation to the war in Iraq.
Stopping just short of calling the president a liar, Kerry routinely accuses Bush of "running up a truth deficit" and compiling "a long list of broken promises."
His strategy is risky. By challenging Bush's truthfulness, the presumptive Democratic nominee invites scrutiny of his reputation for vacillation and seemingly contradictory stands, such as backing the president's decision on whether to go to war with Iraq but against continued funding for military operations and the country's reconstruction.
"They're swimming way upstream on this one," said Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for the president's reelection effort.
But the reward for Kerry also is potentially significant, as the Massachusetts Senator aims at one of Bush's biggest political strengths: his image as a leader who talks straight and is resolute in his positions.
But much of the erosion appears rooted in growing public doubts about the war in Iraq and, as some see it, the disconnect between the results Bush promised and the way events have played out.
"There are no weapons of mass destruction. After the capture of Saddam it got worse, not better," said one Republican campaign strategist, who has been close to the White House and did not want to be identified as a critic of Bush's policies.
"All of the markers they set have been bogus as far as what the reality turned out to be."
Supporters of the President believe events in Iraq will ultimately bolster Bush's case for reelection. The Republican strategist who criticized the president's handling of Iraq also asserted that Kerry was "all over the map" on the issue.
"It's one thing to accuse Bush of playing fast and loose and another to be seen as a viable alternative," the strategist said. "It's two steps, not just one."
Whether Kerry can turn Bush's character and credibility from an asset to a liability depends on many things apart from the president's performance, analysts said. Not least is whether the Democratic hopeful — who is still introducing himself to voters — comes to be seen as honest and trustworthy himself.
After bombarding television viewers with almost $50 million in advertisements for a month, President Bush's re-election campaign is curtailing its ads in 18 competitive states.
Officials say the move, slated to start Friday, follows the campaign's long-term ad strategy to flood airwaves only when voters are paying attention to the presidential race.
"We had planned on doing waves of advertising in higher and lower amounts from the very beginning," depending on "windows of opportunity" when public interest was high, Dowd, the campaign's chief strategist, said Wednesday.
Dowd said internal polls show the ads accomplished their goal of casting Kerry in a negative light early in the race.
"The two things voters know about Kerry today more than anything else is that he's a flip-flopper and he's going to raise your taxes," Dowd said.
President Bush's $10-million-per-week advertising blitz, intended to define Kerry as a liberal who voted against defense and intelligence spending, was firing up some voters in swing states — until the news coming out of the 9/11 Commission started to drown out Bush's ads.