Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Sen. John Kerry’s campaign said yesterday that the presidential candidate will not apologize for bringing Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter into the last debate, insisting that he meant it as a compliment and denying that it has hurt the Democrat’s ability to gain ground in post-debate polls.

“Senator Kerry stated a few days ago that it was meant as a positive comment,” Kerry campaign spokesman Tad Devine said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “We think that speaks for itself. It’s not going to be the focus of the campaign in the days ahead.”

The Bush campaign is convinced that Mr. Kerry’s invocation of Mary Cheney when asked a question about homosexuality in the Oct. 13 debate backfired and kept the polls in favor of President Bush even though most Americans thought Mr. Kerry won the third and final televised showdown.

“It came across as creepy, and I think it turned a lot of voters off,” said Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish.

Mr. Bush told the Associated Press on Monday that it was “inappropriate” for Mr. Kerry to have mentioned the vice president’s daughter, and the Cheneys have expressed anger at the senator on the stump.

Miss Cheney’s sister, Elizabeth Cheney, joined in the criticism of Mr. Kerry, saying yesterday that it was “unprecedented” for a presidential candidate to “exploit the child of one of his opponents for political gain.”

“I thought that was out of bounds, and I think what you have seen as a result of that is a lot of folks across the country really wondering what sort of a person would do that,” she told AP. “It was sort of an insight into the character of Senator Kerry.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, broke with most in her party and publicly stated that Mr. Kerry might have made a mistake.

“I think he was trying to strike, actually, a sensitive note, [but] it might not have worked,” she told Albany’s WROW radio Monday, adding that she could “understand why some people might have been bothered” by Mr. Kerry’s comment.

Kerry spokesman David Wade, however, was adamant that the candidate will not apologize, saying the Bush campaign was trying to keep the matter alive to cause a diversion from important issues.

“Apologize for honoring the Cheney family?” Mr. Wade said at a Kerry campaign stop in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “If that’s what George Bush thinks deserves an apology, then his record job loss, mess in Iraq and skyrocketing health-care costs must require a presidential pardon and untold acts of contrition. This is just another attempt to distract Americans’ attention from the worst jobs record in 72 years.”

Democratic political consultant Scott Segal said Mr. Kerry’s debate remark had been intended to “demonstrate the hypocrisy of cluttering the Constitution” with an amendment defining marriage as between only a man and a woman, “while at the same time proudly supporting a gay family member.”

However, Mr. Kerry failed to make that connection.

“Without that explanation, I think the statement left a bad aftertaste, particularly among those voters that think family members are just out of bounds in political discourse,” Mr. Segal said.

There are some signs that Mr. Kerry’s comment might have hurt him in some polls, especially among women.

A Gallup poll released this week showed that Mr. Kerry’s 52 percent to 43 percent lead among women nearly had reversed itself after the debate, going 51 percent for Mr. Bush and 44 percent for Mr. Kerry.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released yesterday showed that 64 percent of likely voters said Mr. Kerry’s remark was inappropriate. Even a plurality of Democrats — 44 percent to 40 percent — agreed.

Although John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics, said “there’s no strong evidence” that Mr. Kerry’s insertion of Miss Cheney in the debate had any real effect, Republican pollster David Winston disagrees.

“What other event would drive this?” Mr. Winston said, noting that Mr. Kerry could have used openly homosexual friends, including fellow Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Barney Frank, to make the point.

“When Kerry brought it up, it was obviously a strategy,” Mr. Winston said. “What it reflected was a meanness in John Kerry. That’s a character-shaping aspect for voters. The fact that he insists that he was trying to say something positive about the Cheneys is so disingenuous and so cynical, it truly boggles the mind.”

• Charles Hurt contributed to this report while following the Kerry campaign in Pennsylvania.

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