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Inside Politics

Kerry's war record may backfire on critics

Those slamming Vietnam hitch may be shooting themselves in the foot


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Questions about Kerry's military record offer the candidate a chance to tout his war experience and stengthen credibility among veterans and voters who favor a strong defense.

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This week in "The Inside Edge," I look at how the dispute over Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's military record could help him.

I also weigh an ex-football player's chances to be Kerry's running mate; describe an unusual take on politics from some NBA players and fans, and look at how political bestsellers are playing in the polls.

Veteran's benefits

The dustup over Kerry's military records could be just the opportuntity he needs to kickstart his general election campaign.

During the Democratic primary, nothing impressed voters as much as stories of Kerry's war heroism.

For nonprimary voters still getting to know Kerry, few things could burnish his image as much as a conversation about how a young man from Yale chose to fight in Vietnam and ended up winning three Purple Hearts, one Silver Star and a Bronze Medal.

A discussion about Kerry's military service would also persuade many voters to take Kerry's military policy more seriously. Indeed, in pointing out that he personally understands what it means to fight and defend the country -- and even to kill -- Kerry could ease any doubt that he would be soft on terrorism or enemies.

During the primaries, Kerry and his veterans' brigade opened the possibility of a veterans' voting bloc for the first time in more than 40 years.

Further discussion of his record, contrasted with the National Guard records of President George Bush and the military deferments of Vice President Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and others, might make the emergence of such a voting bloc that much more likely and give Kerry just the political gift he's looking for.

Bush borrows from Clinton

George W. Bush has once again taken a page out of Bill Clinton's handbook.

At his news conference last week, the president vowed to stay the course on Iraq and the war on terror. He said he stood by the June 30 deadline to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis. Despite this rhetoric of resolve, the president signaled shifts in his policies on Iraq and terrorism.

On the war in Iraq, the president said he would be open to adding 20,000 more troops and to seeking help from the United Nations to form a new post-June 30th interim government -- both suggestions he had previously rejected.

As for the war on terror, the president, who once opposed even the formation of a 9/11 Commission, embraced one of the commission's major implicit suggestions thus far -- the appointment of an intelligence czar.

By co-opting these once-Democratic positions, the president has not only improved his policy position, but has stolen political thunder from the opposition. In doing so, he is following in the tradition of Bill Clinton, who famously co-opted Republican positions on crime, welfare and the importance of a balanced budget -- once a GOP concern -- to become the first Democrat elected to two terms since FDR.

This summer and fall, don't be surprised, despite the tough language, to see a return to "compassionate conservative" positions from a president who very much wants to win re-election. This past week revealed the effort on international issues. Now prepare for co-option efforts on the domestic front -- Medicare, education and, perhaps to the horror of some Democrats, even the environment.

Political page turners

Forget TV, radio and the Internet, the campaigns are looking to bookstores this spring for votes.

Along with Richard Clarke's "Against All Enemies" and Paul O'Neill's "The Price of Loyalty," Bob Woodward's new book "Plan of Attack" is the third nonfiction bestseller in the last six months alone to rattle the polls.

Most of the books have had a negative impact on the president's effort, perhaps even lowering his approval and favorable ratings by 2 to 4 points per book

"Ten Minutes from Normal," a positive portrait of the president as told by Bush campaign adviser Karen Hughes, has not tilted polls either way. But with six months to go, the Republicans still have time to draw even.

Former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson and President Clinton are both set to publish books by November with insights, for better or worse, on current and previous administrations.

Along with paperbacks from Mary Higgins Clark and Jackie Collins, don't be surprised to see a few political potboilers in beach bags this summer.

Can he carry the ball for Kerry?

An average student in high school, John Edwards headed to college with one thing in mind -- playing football for the Clemson Tigers.

A little slow and a little small, he didn't make it. But he did become the first person in his family to graduate from college and later became a successful lawyer and senator from North Carolina. Despite a losing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Edwards is now perhaps the early frontrunner for Kerry's running mate .

Edwards, who was a finalist in 2000 to be Al Gore's running mate, is seen as smart, articulate and compelling. Many Democrats believe Kerry could adopt Edwards' " Two Americas" theme as a powerful message of economic hope and opportunity.

Supporters also believe that Edwards, an ace trial attorney, would be an effective voice for a Kerry presidency and an able critic of the Bush administration. Indeed, a debate between Edwards and Vice President Cheney would offer perhaps the most stark contrast in veep candidates in almost 20 years.

But can Edwards help Kerry win? Many Democrats don't think Edwards can even carry his home state of North Carolina, which Bush won by double digits in 2000. Edwards' supporters point to his appeal among independents in Wisconsin and South Carolina.

Will he be chosen? He'll definitely be a top finalist, and if the economy emerges again as the central campaign issue, he's my odds-on choice.

Next week, I'll tell you about a former Republican who would be Kerry's most electric choice of all.

American Pulse: Taking the Heat

In talking with players for the Miami Heat basketball team and their fans for my American Pulse series on CNN, one thing I took away -- from this admittedly small and unscientific sample -- is how far Kerry is from winning the votes of those wavering on Bush.

Even as some voters expressed doubts about the president, they were still unwilling to shift allegiance to Kerry. Indeed, if these voters are to join the Kerry crowd, the Democratic candidate must offer specific and believable plans on the war in Iraq, terrorism and the economy.

Interesting, the issue of gay marriage did not resonate with the athletes and fans I interviewed.

Miami Heat forward, Samaki Walker, who supports a more inclusive gay rights policy, had this to say: "I think we as a people have become so small-minded ... it kind of scares me that here are the same people that we are electing to lead our country and they are small-minded to such subjects. Then at a broader picture, you know, how can they actually help me?"

Such comments and polls, which show Floridians tend to be more liberal on the issue, leads me to wonder if gay marriage and other social issues will be potent in the true Southern and Bible Belt states, like South Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma, than Sunbelt states like Arizona, Florida and New Mexico.

If this is true and Kerry can convince voters to trust him on terrorism, Iraq and the economy, he may actually be able to turn a disadvantage in Southern and Bible states into an advantage in critical Sunbelt states.

Beginning this week, I will interview voters in battleground states across the country for my American Pulse series on CNN. From Florida and Pennsylvania to Minnesota and Arizona, I'll talk to people you might not expect to hear from on politics -- NBA players, fashion workers, members of a church choir and more. Each Tuesday at 8 pm EST, you can catch the segment on "Paula Zahn Now." I will also continue to write about key observations each week in "The Inside Edge."


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