Thursday, October 21, 2004

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, who has repeatedly brandished firearms during the presidential campaign, bought himself a camouflaged jacket and went goose hunting yesterday in this swing state.

By all accounts it was a successful effort: one bird killed by each of the four men in the hunting party.

But those bloody details were kept far away from the watchful eyes of the 35 reporters and photographers who had been roused early in the morning and hauled out to the farm where Mr. Kerry was to hunt.

“Everybody got one,” Mr. Kerry said upon returning from a duck blind on the edge of a recently harvested cornfield beside a marsh.

He held his over-under double-barrel shotgun in the crook of his arm and flashed a thumbs up as he passed the scrum of reporters who had no formal opportunities to ask questions and could only film and photograph him in his hunting garb with his gun.

It was an opportunity, spokesman Mike McCurry said earlier this week, to get a “better sense of John Kerry, the guy.”

But some electoral advantage was being sought as well. Like Ohio, most of the battleground states this year have strong gun-rights traditions and will vote against a politician if enough doubts are raised about his allegiance to the Second Amendment.

Many election analysts think Vice President Al Gore’s hostility to gun rights cost him states such as West Virginia, Ohio and even his home state of Tennessee, any of which would have won him the election regardless of what happened in Florida.

Mr. Kerry, determined not to repeat the mistake, often accepts guns as gifts during campaign rallies and always displays them proudly before the cheering crowd.

That strategy appears to be paying off, said National Rifle Association President Kayne B. Robinson, who called Mr. Kerry “the most anti-gun candidate we’ve ever had.”

He told The Washington Times earlier this week that Mr. Kerry has been “extremely effective” at taking “the tension out of gun ownership so it is not an election issue, and it is a brilliant strategy on his part.”

Nevertheless, the NRA has rented billboards and paid for other advertisements attacking Mr. Kerry. The group purchased a full-page advertisement in yesterday’s editions of the local Youngstown Vindicator.

And the Bush campaign certainly isn’t being silent.

Vice President Dick Cheney said in Sylvania, Ohio, yesterday that Mr. Kerry’s new hunting coat was “an October disguise — an effort he’s making to hide the fact that he votes against gun ownership rights at every turn.”

“My fellow sportsmen, this cover-up isn’t going to work,” said Mr. Cheney, an avid hunter. “The Second Amendment is more than just a photo opportunity.”

But as Mr. Kerry removes questions among gun-toting voters, he also is careful not to scare off supporters who might be a little squeamish about seeing their candidate smeared with the fresh blood of a fowl whose only crime was to try landing in the wrong cornfield.

So the event yesterday was tightly choreographed.

“He’s going to walk down that line of corn,” explained one staffer, describing the candidate’s precise movements out of the field. “He’ll turn down there and walk up this way.”

Campaign officials wanted to convey the image of a hunter without permitting any of the gory details. They refused, for instance, to allow a reporter to join the hunting party in the blind.

After about two hours of hunting, Mr. Kerry emerged. Photographers with long lenses noticed that he had blood all over his left hand. By the time he reached reporters, he had tucked that hand into his sleeve.

After some speculation among reporters over whether he’d been injured, campaign officials said Mr. Kerry had cut his hand, but that it was mainly goose blood.

Mr. Kerry also was careful not to be photographed holding the carcass of a bird he had just killed. Asked why he was the only hunter not carrying his own bird back, Mr. Kerry laughed and replied: “I’m too lazy.”

Mr. Kerry was later asked about the birds as he boarded his plane to Columbus for a speech about, among other issues, stem-cell research.

“Being cleaned,” he said, waving his hands in the motion of bird cleaning.

A campaign spokesman later said two of the birds would be prepared for cooking and sent to Mr. Kerry.

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