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Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2004 / 12 Tishrei 5765

Roger Simon

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Kerry has finally decided he wants to be Dean | It has taken John Kerry several months to decide that he now wants to be Howard Dean.

Last year, Dean shocked many Democratic stalwarts and political experts by the vigor of his attack on the Iraq war and the harsh words he directed against George Bush.

Many thought that vituperative attacks against an opponent (remember all those articles about how "angry" Howard Dean was?) might seem like a good idea because it energized your base, but that it was a mistake because it alienated moderate swing voters, who really determined the outcome of elections.

Dean thought this was hooey.

"Karl Rove [President Bush's political guru] discovered it, too, but I discovered it independently," Dean told me, adding that the theory is embodied in the writings of George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. "What you do is crank the heck out of your base, get them really excited and crank up the base turnout and you'll win the middle-of-the-roader."

The reason, according to Dean, was that swing voters share the characteristics of both parties and eventually go with whichever party excites them the most.

"Democrats appeal to them on their softer side — the safety net — but the Republicans appeal to them on the harder side — the discipline, the responsibility, and so forth," Dean said. "So the question is which side appears to be energetic, deeply believing in its message, deeply committed to bringing a vision of hope to America. That side is the side that gets the swing voters and wins."

Howard Dean did not win the Democratic nomination, of course. But that doesn't mean his theory was not without value, which the Kerry campaign now seems to accept.

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As if awakening from a slumber, John Kerry has roused himself and is now on the attack.

"I am absolutely taking the gloves off," he told Don Imus. The next day, Kerry gave a speech in Las Vegas in which he accused President Bush of misleading the public about Iraq, of playing politics with national security, of mismanaging the war on terror and of "living in a fantasy world of spin."

You can't get much tougher than that without having the president's security detail wrestle you to the ground.

With both sides finally joining the fray, the base voters of each side are now being fed so much red meat their cholesterol ratings must be about 600.

Why was it necessary for Kerry to shift to offense? Because George Bush had reversed the conventional wisdom that elections involving incumbent presidents are always about the president.

Such elections are usually report cards on the incumbents and you can see why Bush — who presides over a shaky economy and a controversial foreign occupation — might not want to see what his grade was.

But his election team has very effectively made this campaign not about Bush, but about Kerry.

Is Kerry a flip-flopper? Did he lie about Vietnam? Is his position on Iraq — and this is really catching on — "incoherent"?

Kerry helped the Bush campaign enormously by being slow to react. (And his glacial pace in attacking the smear campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was especially inexplicable considering that the last time Kerry fired his campaign manager was because his campaign was too slow in meeting Howard Dean's attacks during the primary.)

Bill Clinton said a couple of years ago that ''when people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right.''

Was John Kerry not listening to this? (Obviously it would be better to find candidates who are strong and right, but these days you take what you can get.)

There are dangers for Kerry in going on offense. Another popular wisdom holds that negative campaigning depresses turnout by alienating voters. And since Kerry is doing much better in the polls among registered voters than likely voters, he obviously wants the turnout to be as large as possible.

But what choice does he have? Slumber on and get beaten senseless by the GOP attack machine? Or attack Bush, goose the Democratic base and hope the middle follows?

True, Kerry will have to go some to equal Dick Cheney's assertion that if Kerry is elected, the United States will be attacked again by terrorists. And even though the White House and Cheney later "walked back" that statement, the political ploy of attack and walk-back is an old one. (It gets you twice as much publicity for the original attack.)

The Republicans know how to do this stuff, and the Kerry campaign seems to be just learning.

Why? Perhaps because for years the Democrats have been cranking out political consultants while the Republicans have been cranking out political assassins.

So here's the question of this campaign: Can the Democrats close that gap in time?

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