This theory about Karl Rove's wily and bold strategy of going after rivals' strengths instead of their weaknesses is Rove's own self-serving analysis and frankly, I think it's bullshit:
"Look, I don't attack people on their weaknesses," he once told reporters in Texas during a campaign. "That usually doesn't get the job done. Voters already perceive weaknesses. You've got to go after the other guy's strengths. That's how you win."
That's not what he does at all. In fact, it's something quite different all together. Rove has developed a campaign of projection in which he tars his opponents with his own candidates' weaknesses and then attacks them.
He attacks Kerry for phony heroism thirty years ago when just last year his own candidate had himself filmed in a little costume prancing around on an aircraft carrier pretending he'd won a war that had only begun. But, by tarring Kerry with using war as a PR stunt for his own personal gain, people can process the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing about Iraq as not really being caused by Junior, but by his rival who is the real shallow opportunist who only pretends to be a man of proven leadership and experience.
He spent 70 million to get people to call Kerry a flip flopper when the truth is that the compassionate-conservative-uniter-not-divider has a very recent proven record of unprecedented ugly partisanship and ruthless bloodlust. He's mananged to convince a large number of Americans that Kerry is unprincipled when the fiscal conservative Bush has just spent the entire surplus and run up the deficit beyond our wildest imaginings just three years ago. That's a pretty good trick.
He's projected Bush's weaknesses on to Kerry and then gone after them ruthlessly. It makes it very difficult to then turn the attack back on Bush because it's been co-opted. It's another example of the Republican epistomological relativism that's driving everybody up the wall.
Now, it is also true that Kerry bears some structural weakness on national security that makes it easier for this absurd notion to be accepted even though he has a box full of medals. (That anyone thinks attacking a Democratic candidate on national security is attacking his strength is kind of funny.) The fact is that any Democrat's heroic war record functions mostly as superficial innoculation against charges of sissiness during campaigns, and it's the reason you see so many more Republican chickenhawks than anti-war Dems in public office these days. To make it up the ladder in Democratic circles, a sterling war record was a huge asset while it was obviously irrelevant to the Republicans. It's pretty clear why that is.
It's kind of related to that old saying of David Halberstam's about Nixon being able to go to China because only Nixon wouldn't be red baited by Nixon. Ever since the 60's only Republicans are considered worthy of wartime leadership because only Republicans won't be called pussies by Republicans. That is the reality of our current political state. As we've seen, no matter how brave and heroic, no matter the extent of the sacrifice, you can be tarred as unworthy of the office of commander in chief if you are a Democrat. Going after Kerry's credibility as a wartime leader is a no brainer. Rove isn't showing any special tactical genius just by doing that --- any GOP strategist would have found a way to take advantage of that existing CW.
What is interesting about Rove is that his way of dealing with his own candidates' even more glaring deficiencies is to build a Kerry straw man in Bush's exact image and then set it afire. I don't know if it will work, or even if he's aware that he's doing it, projection being epidemic in GOP circles. But, it's disarming and confusing and it makes it difficult to effectively counter attack. You end up with some defensive version of "I know you are but what am I" which doesn't really advance your position.