WASHINGTON - Republicans opened a potentially significant new front yesterday in their battle with Democrat John Kerry, launching their first broad assault against his views on abortion, gun control, gay marriage, the death penalty and other social issues.
Since Kerry effectively clinched his party's presidential nomination in early March, President Bush's campaign and the Republican National Committee have challenged him almost entirely over his record on taxes and national defense.
But a study released yesterday by the RNC also targeted the Massachusetts senator on cultural concerns, such as his opposition to banning a procedure some call "partial-birth abortion" and his vote against a measure that allowed states to disregard gay marriages performed outside their borders.
The study highlights Kerry's views on issues politically potent in the South, and it surfaced on the eve of a gathering of Southern Republicans that begins today in Miami.
"The portrait that emerges is that Kerry, on every issue - economic, national security and values - is out of the mainstream in the South and, I would argue, nationally," said Ralph Reed, the Southeast regional chairman for Bush's re-election campaign.
GOP strategists who asked not to be named when discussing party planning said Republicans are not planning a sustained spotlight on Kerry's cultural views at this point in the campaign.
"This is not Dukakis-Bush in 1988," said one informed Republican, referring to the elder George Bush's overwhelming reliance on social issues against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.
But Earl Black, an expert on Southern politics at Rice University in Texas, said yesterday's attack on Kerry could represent "a shot across the bow" that foreshadows the arguments Republicans may use against Kerry in the South and in rural communities across the Midwest.
"None of those issues are explicitly Southern," said Black. "In a lot of rural, small-town America, many of those issues would resonate, and since a lot of voters don't really know much about Kerry at this point, those issues are going to be part of the battle to define him."
In 2000, Bush won all 11 states in the old Confederacy, as well as Oklahoma and Kentucky. Kerry aides have signaled their intention to compete for Arkansas and Florida in the South and have not ruled out targeting Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina.
The RNC study attempts to portray Kerry as outside the Southern mainstream by highlighting votes by him differing from current and former Democratic senators from that region.
The study also spotlights Kerry's opposition to subsidies for tobacco farmers and disaster relief for cotton farmers. But the document's key new thrust is its focus on social issues.
Kerry's campaign has signaled a multipronged defense against GOP attacks, including noting that he has moderated some of his positions.
After opposing capital punishment in all instances, he endorsed the death penalty for terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Recently, Kerry said he believes states have the right not to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere, even without the authority granted in the Defense of Marriage Act.
Throughout most of his political his career, Kerry has tried to ground himself in the cultural mainstream by emphasizing his experiences as a prosecutor in Massachusetts and, above all, a combat veteran in Vietnam.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.