NEW YORK – The presidential election is still four months away, but the mudslinging has already begun. And the L-word — liberal — is smack dab in the middle of the slugfest.
"The problem that the Bush people have is … they don't want this to be a referendum on George Bush and his four years as president, really," said Peter Fenn, president of Fenn Communications Group (search), a Democratic political media firm. "They want it to be a scare campaign focusing on Kerry and now Edwards. The only way they figure they'd win this race is to eviscerate the Democratic ticket."
Last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill jumped on Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's pick of a vice presidential candidate — John Edwards, the junior senator from North Carolina — and zeroed in on the candidates' liberal ratings, among other things.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said, this is "not a balanced ticket …Kerry is the No. 1 liberal in the Senate and Edwards is No. 4."
Former Republican National Committee (search) Chairman Rich Bond said, "This is the most liberal ticket since George McGovern and Sargent Shriver."
Bush-Cheney chief strategist Matthew Dowd said the Kerry-Edwards ticket "is the most out-of-the-mainstream, liberal ticket in the history of the Democratic Party."
President Bush himself, while campaigning this week, said Kerry tried to claim he was "the candidate with conservative values."
"Kind of hard to square that with what he said when he said, "I'm a liberal and proud of it,'" Bush continued during campaign speeches in Michigan and Wisconsin. "And now he has a running mate. Senator Kerry is rated as the most liberal member of the United States Senate. And he chose a fellow lawyer who is the fourth most liberal member of the United States Senate. Back in Massachusetts, that's what they call balancing the ticket."
The non-partisan magazine National Journal in February released its yearly congressional vote ratings and identified Kerry as the No. 1 most-liberal voter in the Senate and ranked Edwards as No. 4. The magazine noted, however, that Kerry and Edwards missed many votes in 2003. The scores were based on votes on economic policy, social policy and foreign policy.
Republican media consultants say throwing around the term "liberal" can work to the GOP's advantage.
"Labeling someone a 'liberal' can be a very effective method of positioning and pushing them out of the mainstream. Especially when there is a long history of votes, statements and positions, such as Kerry and Edwards have, to confirm that definition," said Erik Potholm, partner at Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm (search), a Republican media firm.
"Democrats are terrified of the labeling. That's why President Clinton talked so much about welfare reform and 100,000 more cops on the street. Look for the Kerry campaign to try to highlight some conservative votes and positions to try to avoid that labeling at all costs."
But political observers say playing the liberal name game may not work to the benefit of the current White House residents, and voters may not pick up on the negative connotations the incumbents are trying to relay with their tactics.
"I just think the charge is not sort of particularly telling," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. "All one has to do is listen to Kerry and Edwards, look at their proposals, read the platform and you'll see they made an extraordinary effort to repeat much of what Bill Clinton tried to do, which is to take his party more toward the center."
Candice Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University (search), noted that the "liberal" label stuck negatively to Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis when he ran against George H.W. Bush in 1988.
But "I'm not sure it's going to be as successful [a strategy] in 2004 as it was in 1988 … at least for the moment, it looks like the war in Iraq is going to be the major issue."
Unless more domestic issues such as gay marriage take center stage in the election, she said, "it's apples and oranges."
According to a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics (search) poll released in March, 29 percent of those voters surveyed said Kerry's positions on issues were "somewhat liberal," while 25 percent said they were "very liberal," and 9 percent said they were "just right."
In that same poll, 36 percent of those surveyed said President Bush's positions are "very conservative," 30 percent said they're "somewhat conservative" and 9 percent said they were "just right."
"I don't think most voters think of themselves as liberals or conservatives — they think of themselves as more middle of the road," Nelson observed. "I think it's more where candidates try to be, too."
Some media watchdogs say that much of the mainstream media aren't paying enough attention to the liberal argument.
"Reporters sort of agree with Democrats that 'liberal' is a dirty word, so they get very defensive when the word 'liberal' is used," said Rich Noyes, research director for the Media Research Center (search). He added that four years ago, reporters were quick to point out Cheney's conservative record, while the major networks now seem "disinterested" in talking about Edwards' policy stance and ideology and more concerned with talking about his "cosmetics" and "political abilities" — things that are essentially not that important for serving as vice president.
"I think if Democrats keep flinching and running away from the term 'liberal' — even when it applies — they help make it an undesirable label," Noyes continued.
Democratic strategists say it's not worth Kerry's and Edwards' time to try to defend themselves against the label but instead should just highlight their record as is.
"Is it liberal to call for balanced budgets? Is it liberal to be a prime mover of welfare reform? Is it liberal to want to have NATO and the nations of the world besides you go after the War on Terror? I think these labels mean less and less now and I think the effort to demonize the Democrats with labels like that are probably counterproductive for the Republicans," Fenn said.
"[Republicans] can try all this just before Halloween, but I don't think it's going to scare [the voters]," he added. "These guys don't fit the bogeyman," he said of Kerry and Edwards. "I think they're going to have trouble selling it."