Republican campaigners, continuing to highlight Sen. John Kerry’s statements that he had been endorsed by “foreign leaders,” assert that this is part of a pattern of fabrications and exaggerations going back to his Massachusetts campaigns.
For his part, Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has accused President Bush of misleading the United States into war in Iraq and being duplicitous on other issues, such as the cost of the Medicare prescription-drug legislation.
The presidential campaign, getting under way earlier than ever, is shaping up as a contest between two candidates who question the other’s honesty. The Bush campaign has broadcast a flurry of television commercials attempting to define Mr. Kerry as a liberal with a loose tongue, and the flurry will continue this week.
“It’s always been Kerry’s tendency [to exaggerate], but he has become expert at it because the Massachusetts electorate has indulged his missteps over the years,” said Robert Gray, a Republican media strategist in Boston who was spokesman for Republican William Weld’s 1996 attempt to unseat Mr. Kerry. “And now he can’t help himself. It’s become a bad habit.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that if Mr. Kerry didn’t back up his statements about meeting with foreign leaders who told him “You gotta win this,” voters should assume Mr. Kerry was making the endorsements up.
“What we’re seeing is part of a pattern,” Mr. McClellan said. “This is not the first time that Senator Kerry has made claims and refused to back them up.”
Mr. Kerry told a press conference in June 1996 that he had “introduced yesterday” legislation providing health care subsidies for children. He then began running TV ads touting the plan.
But the Boston Globe reported Oct. 2 of that year that Mr. Kerry had not introduced the bill until the night before — after the newspaper had called to ask about the legislation.
Mr. Gray said Mr. Kerry survived the controversy because Massachusetts is so heavily Democratic. “The health care bill — in a majority of the 50 states, lying like he did about filing a health care bill he was campaigning on likely would have cost Kerry the election,” he said.
The Boston Globe reported in 1996 that Mr. Kerry scolded Mr. Weld for breaking a personal spending cap that the two men had agreed to, even though Mr. Kerry had “the only clear violation of the cap” by spending $1.7 million of his own money.
In the face of questions by the paper, Mr. Kerry retreated from an assertion that his first Senate floor speech was made in defense of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision finding that abortion is a constitutional right. On another occasion, he disavowed a statement entered into the Congressional Record under his name that claimed an Irish heritage.
In his four campaigns for the Senate, Mr. Kerry won two bruising elections — his primary victory in 1984 and his general election win over Mr. Weld in 1996. Those races, and his 19 years in the Senate, have given Republicans thousands of votes, quotes and statements to scour.
“I think the bottom line for Kerry — he has held elected office in a state that’s overwhelmingly Democratic and friendly to his politics. So he has gotten away with fibbing and getting caught trying to have it both ways because he runs for re-election in Massachusetts. The rest of the country is quite different,” Mr. Gray said.
Though voters still find Mr. Kerry more trustworthy than Mr. Bush, according to polls, the Republican charges appear to be having an effect.
A CBS-New York Times poll released last week found that 57 percent of those surveyed think Mr. Kerry “says what people want to hear,” and only 33 percent think he “says what he believes.”
Chad Clanton, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, dismissed the suggestion that Mr. Kerry is vulnerable to criticism about his truthfulness and said the Kerry campaign will try to make the case that President Bush is not credible.
“We’re not going to take a lecture from the Bush campaign on this,” Mr. Clanton said. “This president has a long trail of broken promises that the American people are very aware of. That’s one of the big reasons they want change in the White House.”
For his part, Mr. Bush, on several occasions as president, has made public demands on pending bills, but abandoned those principles later.
For example, he accepted an education-reform bill in 2001, although it lacked the vouchers he initially had demanded. He also endorsed the pending energy bill that did not have, as he had sought, provisions to explore for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2002, he signed campaign-finance reform, but said at the bill-signing ceremony that it might not be constitutional. And last year, he signed a $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug entitlement that conservative critics said did not enhance the long-term financial stability of the program, as Mr. Bush initially had insisted.
Others who have watched Mr. Kerry in Massachusetts said his honesty has never been questioned. Louis C. DiNatale, a senior fellow at the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, said Mr. Kerry was not dogged by charges he switched positions.
“Prior to the national race, I never heard of Kerry being accused of being a flip-flopper. What you’d hear is Kerry being accused of being an equivocator,” Mr. DiNatale said.
Still, he said, Mr. Kerry has deviated from the “classic Democratic orthodoxy” enough to get everyone upset at him, giving him a record that leaves him open to the charge.
“Based on Kerry’s history in Massachusetts, is it a surprise they’re trying to go after him as a flip-flopper? No.”
Morris Reid, a communications strategist who worked in the Clinton administration’s Commerce Department, said labels like “flip-flopper” probably won’t stick to Mr. Kerry.
But what Mr. Kerry needs to do, Mr. Reid said, is to become more presidential on the campaign trail. “John Kerry has to have his surrogates,” he said. “Let other people get up there and say these types of things. He has to do and say things that are much more presidential.”