WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry (search) may stress a centrist stance while trying to woo primary voters on the campaign trail, but his voting record resembles that of one of the most liberal lawmakers in the Senate — chief backer and Massachusetts' Democratic dean, Edward Kennedy (search).
"He's a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. He's pretty much textbook, as liberal as you can get," said Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation (search). "I don't care how you slice and dice his voting record, there is no way he is going to be able to avoid it."
Kerry, 60, has enjoyed the active support of Kennedy, 71, on the recent campaign trail, particularly in Iowa, where Kennedy lost his own caucus bid for president 23 years ago. Kerry won Monday's caucuses with 38 percent of the vote.
But Kennedy still throws around considerable political muscle, and helped with the final thrust on Kerry's campaign, rallying audiences on Sunday on Kerry's behalf during stops in Des Moines, Waterloo and Iowa City. He then introduced Kerry as the next president during Kerry's Iowa victory speech on Monday night.
Aside from sharing the same zip code, the two men both have strong liberal records, especially when it comes to domestic issues like taxes, the death penalty, the environment, abortion and gay rights.
Kerry's ratings with conservative and liberal organizations do not radically differ from the other senators in the race, John Edwards (search) of North Carolina and Joe Lieberman (search) of Connecticut. But according to the National Journal scorecard, Kennedy and Kerry vote decidedly more liberal on social issues, being weighed as 82 percent liberal in 2002 compared to Lieberman with 52 percent and Edwards with 56 percent.
But political observers say to inextricably link the two men is to ignore the differences in the two records. Where their votes might fall on the same side of the partisan line, Kerry's positions have often been less far-left than Kennedy's, especially on trade and foreign policy.
"[Kerry] has been a free trader, he's generally supported trade expansion. He's been a fiscal disciplinarian and he's supported some really tough education reforms," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute (search), the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
"In a lot of ways they are going to have similar records as all Democrats have similar records," Marshall said. "But, I would say that, in general, Kerry has shown a centrist and independent instinct and has not been as closely identified with the constellation of special interests groups that work with so many Democrats on the Hill."
The most striking difference, perhaps, is the senators' positions on the war in Iraq — Kennedy voted against the resolution authorizing the war and Kerry supported it. His pro-war position has forced Kerry to spend much of the primary campaign season explaining why he approved the resolution and criticizing President Bush for not getting the support of the United Nations (search) before heading into battle.
On taxes, both Kerry and Kennedy voted against the Bush tax cuts, but while Kennedy has talked of repealing all of them, Kerry has made maintaining cuts for the middle class a central theme. Both senators have no great standing with taxpayers' organizations, however.
"They're pretty much two peas in a pod when it comes to spending," said David Keating, executive director of the conservative Club for Growth (search). "If you like Ted Kennedy, you will like John Kerry on spending."
Keating rebuts arguments that Kerry is a fiscal disciplinarian, venturing to say that "Kerry is leading the pack" as a "fiscal liberalist" even more so than Kennedy, who has been in office since 1962.
The National Journal reports that Kerry voted liberal 95 percent of the time on economic issues in 2002, while Kennedy voted liberal 85 percent in the same period. Meanwhile, the National Taxpayer Union (search) gave Kerry an 18 percent rating in 2002, slightly better than its rating of 13 percent for Kennedy.
Both Kerry and Kennedy voted against confirming their former colleague, Sen. John Ashcroft, as Bush's attorney general. In the 107th Congress, they both voted against barring gays from leading Boy Scout (search) troops and voted for allowing abortions in overseas military hospitals. They both voted against drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search).
The Almanac of American Politics says Kerry, a Yale University graduate and lawyer, came to office in 1984 with "the reputation of a strong liberal." He first made a name for himself in 1971 when he returned from the Vietnam War a decorated Navy officer and testified in Senate hearings against U.S war policy and what he described as rampant war crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
Liberal groups have awarded positive marks for the two senators. In 2002, the Americans for Democratic Action (search) gave Kennedy and Kerry grades of 100 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The American Civil Liberties Union (search) gave both men a rating of 60, and the League of Conservation Voters gave Kerry a 94 percent rating, and Kennedy 82 percent, in the same period.
Both men are Catholics, but received low marks from the Catholic Family Organization (search) based on their recent votes regarding abortion. Both voted against the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban (search) of 2003 and for failed measures supporting access to the so-called "morning after" abortion pill in the last three years.
Foreign policy and trade are the two issues where the senators differ the most. While Kennedy has been more wary about expanding trade agreements, Kerry has been a supporter. This accounts in part for the higher ratings Kerry has received over the years from the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Kerry has also been more active on defense issues throughout his nearly 20 years in office, say analysts.
"Senator Kerry has a lot of evidence at hand to combat this barrage if criticism that he is a Kennedy clone," said Marshall. "They have different focuses and they have different approaches and they are from different generations."
Democrats acknowledge that Kerry may need to start distinguishing himself from Kennedy and Massachusetts' liberal reputation as the campaign moves out of New Hampshire after Tuesday's primary and into the more conservative Southern and Midwestern states.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network (search), said that won't be difficult, because he's a different man.
"What's going to matter most is what [the candidates] are for, not where they're from," Rosenberg said. "And no matter how you cut it, he [Kerry] is clearly a moderate centrist."
Not so, said Baird. "He could be cast as a limousine liberal over and over again and it would fit every time."