Four years later, Bush faced U.S. Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts. A decorated Vietnam War veteran who had seen combat as a swift boat captain, Kerry became a leader of the anti-war movement once he left the Navy. Bush focused on Kerry’s liberal voting record in the Senate, including a vote against an $87-billion bill to fund the war on terror. Bush chose to highlight this choice in his ads, leading Kerry to respond, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bush saw the opportunity to attack Kerry as a flip-flopper. Kerry, on the other hand, attacked Bush as an unqualified commander in chief, who tricked the American people into an ill-conceived and unpopular war in Iraq. He pledged to the Democratic National Convention and a national televised audience that he would “be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.” To drive the image home, he highlighted his wartime experience in Vietnam, saluting and declaring that he was “reporting for duty,” a line that garnered much popular criticism.

Bush experienced a Vietnam-era controversy of his own during the 2004 campaign when CBS reporter Dan Rather aired allegations that Bush did not fulfill his duties in the Texas Air National Guard, which later proved to be based on false reports and forged documents. Along with making a strong case against a John Kerry presidency, Bush focused his campaign on showing that he could continue to lead the nation on major issues. For his second term, he pledged “to modernize Social Security, reform the immigration system, and overhaul the tax code, while continuing No Child Left Behind and the faith-based initiative, implementing Medicare reform, and above all, fighting the war on terror.”

The two candidates debated three times during the fall campaign. Kerry was aggressive, particularly in the first debate, which caught Bush by surprise. Networks showed split screen images of Bush reacting to Kerry’s charges in that first debate, and the President appeared arrogant and disdainful. Bush corrected his expressions in the next two debates, while Kerry committed a major gaffe on a question about homosexuality when he cited the fact that Vice President Cheney’s daughter is a lesbian. Critics derided Kerry for gratuitously dragging the vice president’s family into the campaign.

Election day started with a shockwave through the campaigns and the media. According to exit polls, the President was doing poorly, even in strong Republican states such as Mississippi and South Carolina. Although they could not yet share their findings publicly, it was clear the media were bracing for a major upset. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, however, was convinced the methodology of the exit polls had to be wrong and, in the end, he was correct. The election would come down to the swing states of Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, and Ohio. Though they were close, the Bush team became convinced they had won all four and, with them, the presidency. At about four in the morning, however, rumors began circulating that Kerry and Edwards would file a lawsuit over the results in Ohio. Provisional ballots had not been counted in the state by the end of election night, leaving the results in some doubt. Consequently, Bush chose not to declare victory and again denied his supporters, gathered near the White House, a chance to celebrate. Bush sent Chief of Staff Andy Card to explain: “President Bush decided to give Senator Kerry the respect of more time to reflect on the results of this election. We are convinced that President Bush has won reelection with at least 286 electoral votes.” Kerry called the next morning to concede. 

In the end, Bush won 286 Electoral College votes to Kerry’s 251, along with 50.73 percent of the popular vote. Having lost the popular vote in 2000, this majority, bare though it was, added some popular legitimacy to the Bush presidency and gave him confidence he had could focus on his domestic policy goals. Bush declared that he had earned political capital from the campaign and now he intended to spend it. His hopes, however, were soon dashed.

The Iraq War grew more unpopular as the insurgency escalated and American causalities continued to mount. The government’s seemingly inept reaction to the decimation caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, further detracted from the President’s popularity. A series of scandals involving Republican politicians also undermined the party’s support. The 2006 midterm elections were a disaster for President Bush and his party as they lost control of both houses of Congress and a majority of governorships across the nation. Bush’s legislative agenda never recovered.

Source: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “George W. Bush: Campaigns and Elections.” Accessed May 24, 2016.­/president/biography/gwbush-campaigns-and-elections.

Anonymous. 2004. "W'04." Printed cloth (Bandanna). From Complex, New York Historical Society.  Accessed: May 24, 2016.

Anonymous. 2004. "1 More Day to a Fresh Start." Allied Printing Trades Council for Kerry-Edwards 2004, Inc. Photomechanical Print.  Repository Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540