As the battle of TV commercials heats up in the 2004 presidential race, I can't help but be reminded of a similar situation eight years ago when President Bill Clinton was challenged for re-election by Republican Bob Dole. Like this election, the airwaves heated up early in that campaign. Unlike this one, the ads eight years ago seemed to all come from the Democratic side.
And it was those ads attacking Dole that suggest what's good for the 1996 goose may be good for the 2004 gander.
Back then, the Democrats' brilliant campaign strategy featured a series of early TV attacks linking Sen. Dole to the increasingly unpopular Newt Gingrich. The pair was labeled the"Dole-Gingrich" team, even though Gingrich was U.S. Speaker of the House and not Dole's vice-presidential running mate.
I'm sure Dole remembers. To this day, he refers to those ads as having done more than anything else to prevent the building of any real momentum in his quest for the White House. Dole would be the first to say that Gingrich's image problems were much the result of a bum rap from the media. At the same time, the skilled and affable GOP veteran also likely would agree that it was a smart ploy by Democratic strategists, who well knew that just about anything is fair in war and politics.
That brings us to 2004. Just as Dole seemed unable to distance himself from Gingrich, it seems that John Kerry has an inextricable link with fellow Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. For better or worse, Kennedy as a political personality rouses passionate feelings among many voters. So when will the Bush campaign take off the gloves and start airing "Kerry-Kennedy" ads in moderate, swing-vote states?
So far, Kerry has gotten off light with a GOP ad campaign that barely lands a glancing blow to his rather prominent chin. Saying that Kerry wants to increase taxes or is soft on national security is all fine, but everyone expects nothing less from a Democratic candidate in the first place.
Soon enough, these words get all mangled and twisted around, the Democrats and their friends start talking about how America just can't take any more of the Bush White House, and eventually, everyone's eyes start to glaze over, and the pundits declare the Republicans' tack as just "politics as usual, starting early."
But throw in old Ted's smiling face, and that's a different story. It also would be ironic. Just as Gingrich had policy dimensions that should have appealed to liberals his love of education and technology, for example Kennedy in truth is well-liked by some of the nation's top political leaders. He's bright, funny and a genuinely friendly person.
Unfortunately for Kerry, he also still is the poster boy for unabashed, in-your-face, over-the-top liberalism. To date, Kennedy has only done nominal damage to the Kerry campaign. Kennedy has appeared to be the unofficial emcee at virtually every Kerry victory party. And at Kerry press conferences, Kennedy seems to shadow the Democratic nominee's every move. But voters pay these antics little mind.
What they do notice is paid media. And the Kerry campaign has to be thanking its lucky stars that the Bush team has been spending its time and money on inside tricks and milquetoast statements, rather than pulling out the tried-and-tested political "atomic" weapon so skillfully employed by Bill Clinton and company just a few years back.
Will the Republicans wise up and discuss the voting record of the "Kerry-Kennedy" team? Perhaps, but if they wait too long, it may not matter. If Kerry moves quickly in naming a vice-presidential candidate, the GOP will have lost any mileage it could get from a Kennedy ad. After all, those "Dole-Gingrich" ads didn't make sense once there was an actual "Dole-Kemp" ticket. Following that, Newt's name could no longer be used in such close connection to Dole. But it didn't matter; the damage was already done.
With strong American allies like Spain repudiating their own leadership over their role in the Iraq war, with the stock market getting jittery and with endless media stories about a jobless economic recovery, even old Ted may not be able to save the president.
Nevertheless, if the Republicans are going to talk about the Democrats being soft on security and big on increased government spending and higher taxes, why not attach an unpopular face to those attacks?
It may be early in the presidential sweepstakes, but the Bush campaign might want to salute the NCAA basketball tournament by throwing out the zone defense in favor of a full-court press. Because right now, Kerry is streaking down the court for an uncontested shot.
Matt Towery is chair of InsiderAdvantage, which works in conjunction with The Marketing Workshop to conduct polls for his syndicated column. He is based in Jacksonville, Fla.
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