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Jewish World Review May 3, 2004 / 12 Iyar, 5764

Roger Simon

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In the mud | It might appear as if John Kerry has plenty of time to pick a vice presidential running mate. After all, the Democratic National Convention is not until the last week of July.

But some think Kerry has waited too long already. Some think it is no accident that Vice President Cheney has heated up his attacks on Kerry at a time when Kerry has no running mate to reply.

The result is that Kerry must do the counter-attacking himself. This makes him look negative at a time when he should be building a positive image with the American people.

Some have advised Kerry to ignore Cheney, who this week attacked Kerry for his "inconsistencies and changing rationales" on the war in Iraq. Those who advise not responding to Cheney do so under the theory that Cheney is irrelevant because when it comes to choosing a president, hardly anybody casts a ballot based on who the running mate is.

In other words, demonizing Cheney is a waste of good demonizing.

I don't buy this theory, however. True, polling shows that Cheney has high negatives and his presence on the ticket will probably not affect the outcome of the election.

But Cheney commands attention when he speaks. And Kerry cannot afford to let Cheney define him to the American people. If Kerry had a running mate, the running mate could respond to Cheney and the media, at least most of the media, would try for balanced coverage. But Kerry's surrogates — a few governors, members of Congress, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee — cannot command the same attention as a vice president or a vice presidential candidate.

This is a problem. The story line for Kerry, the filter through which the press and public see things, is being set in stone for Kerry just as it was for Al Gore: Kerry waffles, Kerry flip-flops, Kerry lies.

Need evidence? Whether Kerry threw away his Vietnam medals or his Vietnam ribbons 33 years ago would, under normal circumstances, be a trivial story, barely worthy of mention. Yet this story received major attention this week. Why? Because it was viewed as being more than about medals vs. ribbons, it was viewed as a revelation about Kerry's character. (He once had said medals and now he says ribbons.)

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So the issue is never the issue. The issue is always the candidate's character. Does anyone remember what Al Gore allegedly "lied" about during his first debate with George W. Bush? Probably not, but many remember that it was the "sighs and lies" debate, with Al Gore fulfilling the story line that had been laid out for him: He was a waffler, an exaggerator, a man of untrustworthy character.

The Kerry campaign must work hard to change the story line, to alter the filter, if Kerry is to succeed. And, when Kerry is attacked, the campaign will often need to attack back. But that does not mean that Kerry, himself, should be left to do all the dirty work.

"If they're going to attack me, and they're going to start accusing me of something, then I'm going to demand a level of accountability from them that I think ought to be forthcoming," Kerry said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

What is wrong with that sentence? To many I's and me's. The election (as Howard Dean kept reminding people) is not about the candidates. It is about the voters. Or should be.

Kerry needs somebody to do the negative thing, so he can do the positive thing, the vision thing, the what-I-want-to-do-for-America thing.

In other words, Kerry needs a running mate.

Picking one is not as difficult a chore as campaigns make it out to be. Kerry does not have that large a field to choose from and even bad choices are usually not fatal: Dan Quayle did not keep George H.W. Bush from being elected.

The Kerry campaign needs somebody who can get down in the mud, so Kerry can climb out of it. And it needs him or her now.

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