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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

In presidential politics, there is no free lunch

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- President Gerald R. Ford faced a stiff challenge from former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in the 1976 Texas Republican primary.

Because presidents command local media attention, TV cameras in San Antonio recorded the president's embarrassment when he tried to eat a tamale without first removing the husk. The line on the press bus was that Ford had sewed up the " klutz vote."

Four years earlier, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee, while campaigning in New York City, had committed his own gastronomical gaffe: In a kosher delicatessen to go with his corned beef sandwich, McGovern asked for a glass of milk.

Now it is Sen. John Kerry's, D-Massachusetts, turn for a food faux pas. Last Monday afternoon, at 9th and Wharton in South Philadelphia, Kerry showed up for a scheduled visit with supporters and customers at "Pat's King of Steaks." There, Kerry did what presidential candidates are supposed to do. He ordered the local favorite, a Philadelphia cheesesteak hoagie.

Apparently, unlike candidates John McCain and Al Gore, who knew when they stopped in South Philly that the cheese in a cheesesteak is Cheese Whiz, John Kerry made the mistake of asking for Swiss cheese.

Owner Frank Olivieri confided to reporters that he had persuaded the Democratic presidential candidate (who as a 10-year-old had actually gone to boarding school in Switzerland) that what he really wanted was Cheese Whiz. But the invited press had heard the exchange and the damage was done.

American candidates have long used their food preferences to define their politics. When England's King George VI, on the eve of World War II, visited President Franklin Roosevelt at Hyde Park, FDR offered the British monarch and his royal entourage a menu of very American hot dogs and decidedly non-premium Rupert's beer

To prove he was just folks, President George Herbert Walker Bush, like Kerry an alumnus of a prestigious boarding school and Yale, emphasized his incurable appetite for pork rinds. And who could forget Bush's 1990 declaration of dietary independence? "My mother made me eat broccoli. I hate broccoli. I am president of the United States. I will not eat any more broccoli."

New York is a tossed ethnic salad. The late Republican Nelson Rockefeller (who was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth but instead with complete silver place-settings for 12) demonstrated an unmatched common touch while campaigning for governor by feasting on knishes and kung pao chicken and tacos and hot dogs and cannolis. Because politics is probably the most imitative of all the American arts, candidates ever since have tried -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to match the delightfully ravenous Rocky.

In the knife and fork department (or, more accurately, in the carry-out line), Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton was undeniably a small 'd' democrat. Who couldn't identify with the Arkansas governor's weakness for Big Macs and fries? Nothing pretentious about that.

Ketchup has played its own important political role. The administration of Ronald Reagan stupidly and indefensibly classified -- for school lunch purposes -- America's favorite condiment as a vegetable. A favorite dish of President Richard M. Nixon, a man of undeniably different tastes, was cottage cheese with ketchup on it.

All of which brings us back to ketchup and John Kerry, whose own pockets became very deep indeed after he married an heiress to the Heinz fortune.

As a Massachusetts Democrat with a patrician pedigree and a fondness for $75 haircuts, Kerry -- who proved his courage in the dangerous waters of Vietnam's Mekong Delta, when he commanded swift boats through enemy attacks -- needs to spend some real quality time with the kind of people who were in his crew then.

People who know what it's like to fall behind on a 48-month car note and whose favorite cheese is not brie, but Velveeta. He can be grateful that his Philly cheesesteak stumble was in the week of Arnold-mania and in the month of August 2003, rather than September 2004. Otherwise, he would be eating only crow.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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