Sunday, April 11, 2004

President Bush has couched his attacks on Sen. John Kerry, his likely Democratic opponent, in humor whenever possible, believing voters will respond better to levity, campaign strategists say.

But the Kerry campaign insisted Democrats can be funny, too.

“I’ve been having problems with the right wing lately,” the Massachusetts senator deadpanned after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder last week.

“I really like that one,” said Kerry spokeswoman Kathy Roeder. “If you’re always talking about really serious stuff, humor is a good way for the candidate to break things up and put some of their personality into the campaign.

“The danger is that there are some times when humor is not appropriate,” she said. “It’s appropriate to be self-deprecating, but you need to realize there is a line that you shouldn’t cross.”

Mr. Kerry recently accused Mr. Bush of crossing that line by joking about the administration’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was the president’s main reason for deposing Saddam Hussein.

“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” Mr. Bush said as he showed slides of himself peering under furniture in the Oval Office. The running gag was part of the president’s recent stand-up routine at the White House Television and Radio Correspondents’ annual dinner.

Mr. Kerry said the jokes illustrated the president’s “cavalier attitude” about grave issues of war and peace.

“If George Bush thinks his deceptive rationale for going to war is a laughing matter, then he’s even more out of touch than we thought,” he said.

The Bush campaign responded that Mr. Kerry and his staff should lighten up.

“They have no sense of humor,” said campaign spokesman Terry Holt. “It was funny. What I find fascinating is that in a room full of 2,500 journalists and TV producers, the only people who didn’t think it was funny were the Kerry staffers.”

The Bush campaign also has used humor in its TV ads attacking Mr. Kerry. For example, an ad that accuses the Massachusetts liberal of trying to raise gasoline taxes is made to look like a comic silent movie from the 1920s, complete with grainy, black-and-white footage of a hapless motorist pushing his out-of-gas Model T.

Such humor has been used since the president first criticized Mr. Kerry during a Feb. 23 discussion about Democrats who sought their party’s presidential nomination.

“They’re for tax cuts and against them; they’re for NAFTA and against NAFTA; they’re for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act; they’re in favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it,” he told the Republican Governors Association. “And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts.”

The governors roared with laughter, which encouraged Mr. Bush to take a light touch whenever possible.

Mr. Kerry himself recently used humor in one of his campaign ads, which portrayed Mr. Bush as a schoolboy flunking math because he couldn’t balance the federal budget. However, even some Democrats say the Kerry campaign has a humor deficit.

Democratic strategist Patrick Caddell said the Bush campaign “should go even further” in its use of humor against Mr. Kerry. He cited the devastating laughter prompted by Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis’ tank ride during the 1988 campaign.

“I’ll tell you what: It’s devastating when you get people to ridicule someone,” he said. “When they will laugh at a candidate, it’s all over.”

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