- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2004

There was one moment in the final presidential debate in which Sen. John Kerry was downright likable. When offering up the standard gallant remark that he, President Bush and Bob Schieffer had all “married up,” Mr. Kerry had the presence of mind to realize instantly how that sounded coming from not just the only man on the stage, but one of the only men in America, who was lucky enough to marry a billionaire.

Grinning broadly, he added: “I more than others, perhaps. It’s OK, I can take it.” It was obviously spontaneous and funny.

Yet Mr. Kerry was also guilty of a smarmy mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter being a lesbian. This was no offhand remark. Sen. John Edwards had raised it during the vice presidential debates as well, under the guise of “praising” the vice president for “embracing” his gay daughter. Sorry, but it just doesn’t seem likely Mr. Edwards was looking for ways to applaud his opponent. It was clearly some sort of strategy by the ticket.

Following the debate, Mary Beth Cahill, Mr. Kerry’s campaign manager, asserted defensively that since Mary Cheney was open about her sexuality, her situation was “fair game.” Fair game for what? For exploitation? This doesn’t add up.

Democrats will doubtless argue Mr. Kerry raised the matter of Miss Cheney’s sexuality to dramatize the point that homosexuality is not a chosen lifestyle. How can it be so when even Republican vice presidents have lesbian daughters? But that’s unpersuasive. Mr. Bush had just finished saying he didn’t know whether gays choose to be gay or are born that way. It was gratuitous and unnecessary.

Was Mr. Kerry trying to damage the Bush-Cheney ticket by calling attention to something many conservative Republicans probably did not know about the vice president’s daughter?

Here’s how that makes sense. Liberals tend to believe conservatives are bigots. On the subject of homosexuality, they think conservatives oppose same-sex “marriage” not because they genuinely believe in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage but because they hate homosexuals. To cite Mary Cheney therefore seems to them a “gotcha” moment.

It was tawdry. One cannot even imagine what stratospheric outrage the national press would have reached if a Republican had commented on the sexuality of a Democrat’s child.

Another revealing moment: the discussion of religion. President Bush was nearly eloquent on the subject. Mr. Kerry seemed to picking his carefully focus-grouped way through a potential minefield. He wanted credit for being Catholic with its Kennedy associations, but also made it clear he would never impose his religious views on anyone else.

In fact, he rhetorically backed up and drove over this territory a number of times. His religious views are terribly important to him, he protested. But he would never, never impose those views on anyone else. It reminds me of the old line about Sen. Teddy Kennedy, that his religious views were so personal he declined to impose them on anyone — including himself.

We Bush supporters have had to become accustomed to his peculiar dips and rises. Had he been as focused, energetic, articulate and persuasive in Debate 2 as he was in Debate 3, the election would probably be a foregone conclusion.

But Mr. Bush has a habit of getting lazy, or distracted, or I don’t know what and slipping down to within view of the precipice. The palms sweat. He then reaches down into himself and finds the wherewithal to scratch back up to safe ground.

Structurally, this election should not have been close. The country has not elected a self-proclaimed liberal since Lyndon Johnson, nor a non-Southern Democrat since John Kennedy. Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, who believe the same things Mr. Kerry does, lost by crushing margins.

Further, the savage September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States revived Americans’ desire for a muscular foreign policy — an unequivocal advantage for the president.

It should have been short work for the Bush team to quickly sketch Mr. Kerry’s extremely liberal voting record for voters.

Yet it didn’t. The Bush campaign painted Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper. If the Swift Boat Veterans had not charged into the breach, Mr. Bush might be behind today. (And ironically enough, had the Federal Election Commission bowed to the Bush campaign’s wishes to put all 527s under the campaign finance restrictions, the Swift Boat Vets would have been silenced.)

President Bush very much deserves re-election. But he has made difficult what should have been easy.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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