Kerry jumps to defend self against being too far to left

He tells wavering voters he will gladly put record as `liberal' against Bush's

Election 2004

January 27, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - As Sen. John Kerry sought to shore up support for the victory that polls show he is poised to seize here, he leapt at the chance yesterday to defend himself against the charge Republicans are increasingly lobbing at him: that he's a classic Massachusetts liberal out of step with the rest of the nation.

"If the worst thing they can say about me is that I'm, quote, a liberal, or something, let's go - bring it on," Kerry told an undecided voter who wondered aloud how the senator would overcome Republican accusations that he stands even further to the left than Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal icon who is his state's senior senator.

In recent days, as a Kerry nomination has seemed more a possibility, the senator has made strenuous efforts to counter charges that his record on issues from intelligence and national security to gay marriage and abortion, gleaned from his two decades in Congress, is too far to the left. Those critiques will only sharpen if Kerry manages to gain his party's nomination.

"He is a liberal Democrat who has voted in such a way that kept liberal people from Massachusetts happy with him," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that advocates tax cuts. "What else, in a busy world, do you have to know about somebody?"

Kerry has brushed aside the label in recent days, telling reporters and wavering voters that he will gladly put his record up against President Bush's and vigorously defend his positions.

"The real issue here is who has the experience and the record to stand up on domestic issues and foreign policy, and I'm the only candidate running who brings a 35-year record," he said yesterday. "If the worst thing they can do is start calling me names, then we're going to win this, because the American people want real answers."

Kerry has worked for months to erase the notion that he is a lightweight bleeding heart. He has played up the tougher side of his personal story - his experience as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and his days as a prosecutor who put criminals behind bars. He has also highlighted his allegiance with other war veterans - including one fellow Vietnam serviceman whose life he saved, and who surfaced on the campaign trail in Iowa - and has spent much time explaining his positions on key social issues.

On the one recent vote that might defy the liberal label - his support last year for the Iraq war resolution - Kerry has changed his mind. He has had to issue a complex explanation for why he no longer supports Bush's policy on Iraq. That process has sometimes ended up making him look like an equivocating politician rather than a bold leader. It's a reversal that Republicans have ridiculed.

Kerry is up against familiar, and potentially formidable, odds as he fights to break out of the geographic and ideological mold that Republicans have cast for him. Democrats well recall the ill-fated 1988 presidential candidacy of Michael S. Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor with whom Kerry had served as lieutenant governor before moving to the U.S. Senate. Dukakis' presidential aspirations were crushed under a barrage of Republican attacks that he was soft on crime and far too liberal to lead America.

And Kerry faces one additional obstacle that Dukakis did not: thousands of votes in Congress that demonstrate his adherence to positions generally embraced by liberal groups. Indeed, Kerry has received high ratings from liberal interest groups and labor unions throughout his years in Congress.

"The Republicans are right in their initial claims: John Kerry is an unreconstructed liberal," said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "His voting record will provide ample ammunition for Republicans who want to point that out."

Kerry's background as a wealthy blue blood who attended an elite boarding school before moving on to Yale, and his image as a detached, somewhat stuffy personage play into the stereotype.

"The Republicans are going to paint him as a limousine liberal, aloof, with a lifestyle that reflects an elitism," Berry said.

For now, as he works to win the Democratic nod, Kerry seems to be embracing the image of a true party loyalist. He appeared over the weekend at a rally beside Kennedy, proudly describing the senior Massachusetts senator as "the voice of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." That is the phrase once used by the late ultra-liberal Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota to describe himself, and later borrowed by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean for the same purpose.

Kerry has been consistent in his support for abortion rights. He has backed strict gun control measures.

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