Monday, June 14, 2004

President Bush’s re-election campaign has begun a concerted effort to divide the Democratic Party by forcing its congressional candidates to either embrace or reject Sen. John Kerry’s liberalism.

“This is one of the huge stories of the campaign,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. “You’re going to see a lot of efforts by Republican candidates and by the campaign to ask where people stand.”

Earlier this month, for example, Rep. David Vitter, a Republican who is seeking to replace retiring Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, challenged his three Democratic rivals to endorse Mr. Kerry’s support for higher taxes and opposition to a constitutional amendment banning homosexual “marriage.”

In a conference call with Louisiana reporters that was set up by the Bush campaign, Mr. Vitter also demanded that his rivals take a stand on recent remarks by billionaire Democratic financier George Soros, who last week compared the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I think that’s an outrageous statement,” Mr. Vitter said. “We need to hear what John Kerry thinks about that statement, what the U.S. Senate candidates in Louisiana from the Democratic Party think about that statement.”

Such demands have particular resonance in the South, where Democrats tend to be more conservative than in other parts of the country, said Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens.

“It’s not just a Louisiana story,” he said. “We’re going to broaden it out to maybe about four other states in the South and maybe the Midwest.

“We’re going to start to try to highlight the fact that Senate candidates are going out of their way not to endorse Kerry and not to say a word about him,” he added. “Or if they do endorse him, they keep their distance.”

Mr. Mehlman suggested that the strategy has the potential to split the Democratic Party along ideological fault lines.

“The way that Democrats are able to get elected in states like Louisiana and South Dakota and Georgia and North Carolina and South Carolina is by running as Louisiana or South Dakota or North Carolina Democrats, not as liberal Democrats from Washington,” he said.

“And the problem that the Democrat candidates are going to have is they’re going to have to choose between either the John Kerry Democrat Party, which does not represent the values and interests of the people at home, or representing the values and interests of the people at home, which means you’re not standing at a lot of podiums with John Kerry,” he added.

But one recent prominent race suggests that Democrats can win in conservative-leaning states if they do wash their hands of Mr. Kerry.

Democrat Stephanie Herseth, who did not invite Mr. Kerry to campaign for her, won the June 1 South Dakota special House election against Republican Larry Diedrich, who enjoyed campaign visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush.

On issues ranging from the war on terror to welfare reform, Mr. Vitter said Democrats are vulnerable.

“In most cases,” he said, “my Democratic opponents in the Senate race have voted like John Kerry. They just are trying to avoid admitting it.”

In February, the nonpartisan National Journal magazine ranked Mr. Kerry as the “most liberal” member of the U.S. Senate. In January, during a speech at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Democrat suggested he did not need to win Southern states to become president.

“Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South,” he said. “Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own.”

Mr. Vitter told Louisiana reporters on the conference call: “I’d like to know what my opponents in the Senate race think of that, think of their Democratic Party essentially writing off the South.”

Mr. Dickens said he thinks such a Kerry victory strategy is far-fetched.

“If we win the solid South, that means he’s got to win 76 percent of the rest of the electoral votes in the country,” he said.

Mr. Mehlman said Mr. Kerry’s failure to win support in Southern states has put his campaign in an “electoral straitjacket.”

“They’re worried about the states that Bill Clinton won, but Al Gore lost — states like Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri,” he said. “If Al Gore, a sitting vice president from Tennessee, at a time of peace and prosperity, couldn’t win these states, how is the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts going to win these states?”

The task becomes even more difficult when moderate or conservative Democrats running for congressional seats in those states differ with Mr. Kerry’s liberal stance on a host of important issues.

“In a lot of states, you’re going to see that the concept of a unified ticket where people are bringing out voters to help each other is going to be hard to do if the national candidate is an anchor on your hopes,” Mr. Mehlman said.

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