WASHINGTON It's a recurring nightmare for Democratic strategist Tony Coelho the party's presidential candidate portrayed as a flip-flopping opportunist, ill-served by a strife-torn staff. It happened in 2000, when Coelho ran Al Gore's campaign. Now, it's happening to John Kerry.
Democratic leaders fear he's getting ''Gored.''
''What the Kerry people don't understand is, it's succeeding,'' Coelho said.
Scores of Kerry supporters like the former California congressman say their initial response is to remain hopeful, based on polls showing the presumptive nominee tied with President Bush while the Democratic Party is better funded and more united than in 2000. But they are worried about history repeating itself.
''No question, it's a rerun of 2000,'' said Donna Brazile, campaign manager for the former vice president's 2000 race.
''Every Sunday, Team Bush goes in overdrive by outlining the upcoming week's attacks on Kerry. It's followed by paid advertisements and assigning top-notch surrogates,'' Brazile said. ''This is the exact moment in 2000 when Gore was seriously damaged as the Bush team painted the former vice president as a ''serial exaggerator.'''
Republicans are pressing the same points against Kerry, mocking him at every turn.
''How many times can a flip-flop flip before a flip-flop becomes a flop?'' Bush spokesperson Steve Schmidt asked in a recent news release.
Said Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter: ''The guy who has the problem here is George Bush, who is stubbornly sticking to the same failed policies, despite the fact that they are hurting this country. ... Asleep at the wheel or stubborn failure? Either way, America pays the price.''
Kerry has given the GOP plenty of fodder, including:
Voting against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, in favor of the use of military force in Iraq in 2002 and against final passage of an $87 billion reconstruction bill for Afghanistan and Iraq. Explaining that he supported an amendment that would have provided the aid by rolling back Bush's tax cuts, Kerry said, ''I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.'' The Bush campaign turned the quote into an ad.
The Massachusetts senator, who supports higher automobile fuel economy standards, told reporters last week that he doesn't own a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle. Asked whether his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, had a Suburban at their Ketchum, Idaho, home, Kerry put a razor-fine point on his answer: ''The family has it. I don't have it.''
For years, the decorated Vietnam War veteran has said that he threw his ribbons over a fence at the Capitol during a 1971 anti-war protest, not his three Purple Hearts, Bronze Star and Silver Star. However, in a tape of a television interview Kerry gave after the protest, he suggested that he also threw his medals.
Three decades later, Kerry accused the White House of drumming up a ''phony controversy'' to change the subject from turmoil in Iraq and a shaky U.S. economy. Supporters say the strategy is even broader the White House is throwing every conceivable flip-flop or character flaw at Kerry's feet, just as they did to Gore.
Early in the 2000 campaign, Republicans accused the former vice president of taking credit for inventing the Internet, a claim Gore never quite made. Bush's team also jumped on a suggestion by Gore that he and his wife were the models for the novel ''Love Story.'' The vice president later said he was wrong, and chalked it up to a miscommunication.
Neither incident alone ruined Gore's image, but Republicans planted seeds of doubt harvested late in the campaign by Bush.
During a fall debate, Gore said he accompanied Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt to a Texas fire zone. Gore's campaign later said he inspected the fires, but not with Witt.
It was a small mistake, but big enough for GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney to say in September 2000 that Gore ''has failed to speak the truth'' about all sorts of things.
''They're painting Kerry as a liberal, and it's succeeding. They're painting him as somebody who flip flops, and they're succeeding,'' Coelho said, adding that the race is far from over because Kerry has time to show voters his own biography and character. The campaign plans to unveil new biographical ads as early as next week.
Coelho left Gore's campaign in June of 2000, citing health problems. The staff was torn by rancor.
Several Gore advisers who survived that mid-year purge now work for Kerry, including Bob Shrum, with whom Coelho clashed. Shrum fought with Kerry's first campaign manager, Jim Jordan, and first ad-maker, Jim Margolis. Both are gone.
Coelho said he's feels good about Kerry's prospects, even if the campaign structure makes him uncomfortable. Several other Democrats expressed similar views, but only on condition of anonymity.
A senior official at the Democratic National Committee said that while Karl Rove is clearly running Bush's campaign, Kerry's team appears rudderless.
Kerry has said he won't be a ''wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed'' Democrat, pledging to challenge GOP attacks in a way that 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis never did. But he may want to worry more about comparisons to Gore.
''I do think Republicans are trying to Gore him,'' said Waring Howe Jr., a Democratic leader in South Carolina.
Ron Fournier has covered national politics or the White House since 1993.
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