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Inside Politics

Counterattack: Remember Dukakis!


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The G.O.P. is bringing back the strategy that worked so well in 1988

There are no time-outs in presidential politics. Soon after the primaries yield a consensus Democratic nominee, the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republicans will begin an air war, Republican sources tell TIME—instantly spending a good part of the $99 million the party will have in the bank to define that Democrat before most of the country can pick him out of a lineup.

And if that Democrat is John Kerry, how would Republicans come after him? Although he has spent nearly two decades in the Senate, it's his two years as Lieutenant Governor under Michael Dukakis in the 1980s that will form the template for the attack.

Sixteen years ago this winter, the earnest Governor of Massachusetts was favored to be elected President. But Bush père prevailed, of course, by portraying Dukakis as soft on defense, out of touch on values and lenient on crime. Look for a similar though not identical pitch this time.

"There's a lot to mine in the Dukakis-Kerry record," says Ron Kaufman, a Boston-based Republican political consultant who served as political director in the first Bush White House. Republican National Committee researchers have already dug up Kerry's 1988 defense of the Dukakis furlough program, which permitted prison leaves for even violent offenders who exhibited good behavior while behind bars. (At the time, Kerry noted that the Federal Government had a similar plan.)

In 1988, Dukakis' opposition to the death penalty and his veto of a bill requiring public-school teachers to recite the Pledge of Allegiance spurred Republicans to claim he was out of touch with the American mainstream.

The Bush-Cheney team will echo the assault, noting that Kerry also opposes the death penalty, although he makes an exception for terrorists. You can see the ad now: Does Kerry really believe, the narrator might say, that it's O.K. to execute an al-Qaeda operative who blows up a bus but not a gangster who shoots up a restaurant?

Republicans will also press Kerry on one of this year's hot-button issues, gay marriage. They are already eagerly flagging the fact that Kerry was one of just 14 Senators to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996.

The law allows states to refuse to recognize gay marriages that take place in other states. Since the Massachusetts Supreme Court is scheduled to issue another landmark ruling this spring on gay marriage—just weeks before the Democrats descend on Boston for their convention—Republicans think Kerry will be tripped up by his vote just at the politically inconvenient moment.

In 1988 the Bush team lampooned Dukakis in a now famous ad in which he drove a tank while wearing an outsize military helmet.

This time Republicans will take pains to honor Kerry's Vietnam heroism but will single out the times he voted to cut or freeze defense-and-intelligence spending—while conveniently ignoring the instances in which he voted to increase both.

"Howard Dean has said that America's military will not always be the world's strongest. Senator Kerry's voting record would make Governor Dean's vision a reality," says Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

But the Bush team knows that if Kerry, a pugnacious campaigner, is the nominee, he won't be passive, like a previous Massachusetts Democrat. As a presidential adviser put it, "He won't make that Dukakis mistake."

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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