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Inside Politics

Dems look for opening in values debate

Kerry's military service focus of campaign

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

At the convention, John Kerry, seen here in Vietnam, will try to debunk the notion advanced by some Republicans that "values" are the province of conservatives alone.
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Making their case on issues: 
• Special Report:  The issues

Location: Boston's FleetCenter, seats 19,600

Estimated attendees: 35,000

• Estimated budget: $95 million, revised; original estimate was $49.5 million

• Delegates: 4,353 (611 alternates)

• Volunteers: 14,000

• Hotel rooms used: 17,000
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush
Democratic National Convention
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Values. It is a popular word in politics, a staple of campaign speeches and candidate biographies.

But, as used, it can be incredibly vague, serving more as a buzzword to rally supporters and a shorthand means of connecting -- or trying to connect -- a candidate to voters. (Special Report: The issues)

As Sen. John Kerry battles President Bush for the White House, he and other Democrats will try to debunk the notion advanced by some Republicans that "values" are the province of conservatives alone.

The Democratic National Convention, which opens Monday in Boston, affords Democrats the opportunity to cast -- at least temporarily -- the debate on values to their liking by focusing on issues such as health care and showcasing parts of Kerry's background with the potential to impress Americans.

"Kerry doesn't want to be Dukakised on values," said CNN Senior Political Analyst William Schneider, referring to Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee. Republicans casts him as weak on law-and-order issues and beholden to liberal interest groups.

Thomas Mann, a political expert at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, agrees that Democrats don't want a repeat of past years when they have found themselves on the defensive on the question of values.

"They are trying to neutralize this issue cluster with Kerry's war record and with lots of pleasing rhetoric," Mann said

At the four-day convention, Democrats will tout Kerry's character by showcasing his decorated military service during the Vietnam War, a recurring theme in the Democrat's campaign. It's no accident that one of the very first prime-time speakers at the convention will be a former crew mate of Kerry's during his Navy years.

At the same time, Democrats are expected to avoid potentially troublesome cultural issues, such as same-sex marriage -- a topic that dominated the headlines in Massachusetts when courts there opened the door to such unions.

While Kerry says he believes marriage should be reserved for unions between a man and a woman, he opposes Bush's proposal to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And he has voiced his support for same-sex couples to be entitled to health, employment and legal benefits available to heterosexual couples.

On other issues, Kerry has clear differences with Bush: Kerry opposes the death penalty, and he supports abortion rights. But on the campaign trail, Kerry has framed the values debate on values in broader terms -- an amalgam of civil rights, increased access to health care and greater economic opportunities for all Americans.

"For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values," Kerry said in a recent speech before the National Urban League in Detroit, Michigan.

"And I am running for president because I believe that what matters most is not the narrow values that politicians play and use to divide, but the shared values that unit all of us in this country and bring us together as a nation."

That's a common refrain from Democrats, that Republicans use hot-button issues -- such as same-sex marriage -- to rally their base and increase voter turnout at the polls. "The Republicans try to use fancy words and they use wedge issues that split the country apart," said Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Nonsense, say Republicans, who insist their focus on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion restrictions only serves to highlight differences between the candidates. Whatever the motivation, experts say Republicans generally have more to gain by promoting a "values" debate because it matters more to their core supporters.

"The energy on cultural issues has been on the side of the conservatives," Mann said.

Schneider said Kerry won't win the debate by portraying himself as the "values" president. He can, Schneider said, score points by touting his leadership in the military, promoting himself as a family man and -- most importantly -- focusing on issues likely to ring with voters.

"Health care is a very big sleeper issues that worries a lot of people," Schneider said.

Kerry can also point out one fact disputed by neither side this election year -- that the country is deeply divided as poll after poll has shown.

A powerful message in the values debate, Schneider believes, can be Kerry declaring: 'I'm the guy who will deliver what Bush promised -- unity."

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