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Senators Tapped For ‘Truth Squad’

Less than 24 hours after Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) officially named Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his vice presidential pick, top Republican Party officials huddled with a handful of GOP Senators who will comprise the leading edge of President Bush’s re-election communications effort.

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Bush Congressional liaison Elise Finley attended the July 7 meeting at RNC headquarters, sources said. The Senate contingent at the meeting was led by Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.).

At the gathering, it was announced that Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had agreed to head a “truth squad.” The squad’s day-to-day operations will be handled by freshman Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and John Cornyn (Texas). Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) are also members of the “truth squad.”

The group “will appear on television, drive a message on the Senate floor and organize colleagues to talk about the reality of John Kerry’s 20-year Senate record,” said one Bush campaign aide.

Chambliss chief of staff Krister Holladay said his boss had been “setting the record straight on [Kerry’s] defense votes” early on in the campaign when Kerry visited Georgia.

Holladay said Chambliss was recruited for the effort because he — along with his Senate colleagues — can “rapidly respond when an issue comes up and had some credibility in the media and were experienced doing media.”

Tom Eisenhauer, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, dismissed the new Senate Republican effort as simply more of the same from “the most negative and misleading campaign in modern history.”

Kerry’s choice of a fellow Senator to share the national ticket with him heightens the importance of having Republican surrogates who have served with the two men, a Bush campaign aide said.

“These Senators will be in a unique position to tell the Kerry-Edwards story,” the aide said. “All of these Senators understand that the ticket of Kerry-Edwards is the most out-of-the-mainstream ticket ever fielded by the Democratic Party.”

The last time two sitting Democratic Senators were simultaneously nominated for the presidency and vice presidency was in 1960, when Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy and Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson shared the ballot.

For months, Republicans have used the floor of both the House and Senate as campaign battlegrounds. The most recent example is the debate in the Senate this week over a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Passage, which requires 67 votes, is remote, and even a straight up-or-down vote seems like a long-shot proposition. Most observers agree that the real goal of the effort is to publicize this controversial issue on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, which begins July 26.

But Senate Democrats have so far been well-organized in arranging campaign-themed floor speeches, Cornyn said.

“A statement unrebutted is a statement believed,” he said. “It is important for us that we present a balanced picture and present the facts and let people make better decisions.”

Already, the coordinated effort by Senate Republicans has been visible in separate interviews given by Cornyn and Bush campaign officials. Both made the point that the Democratic Senators’ voting records put them out of the mainstream of American voters.

Kerry’s voting record was the most liberal in the Senate in 2003 while Edwards’ had the fourth most liberal, according to calculations made by National Journal.

Democrats dismissed the charge. Both men tacked to the left last year as they pursued their party’s presidential nomination. In 2002, Kerry had the ninth most liberal record.

During his first four years in the Senate, Edwards ranged from the 19th most liberal Senator to the 40th most liberal.

“John Kerry has a lifetime of service and strength in fighting for our country. Edwards has spent a lifetime fighting for a middle class Americans against powerful interests,” said Eisenhauer when asked about the Democratic ticket’s record.

Rebutting arguments like that is key to the GOP effort, Cornyn said. “They are plainly going to try and remake themselves into a centrist, mainstream ticket,” he said. “We shouldn’t let them get away with revisionist history.”