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Invoking Cheney’s Daughter Cost Kerry Among Women Voters

Americans were listening last week when Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) gave them a glimpse into his character, bringing the private life of Vice President Cheney’s daughter into the race. If President Bush’s rise in the polls is any indication, they didn’t much like what they saw. Instead of the hamster-saving father of the Democratic convention, Kerry showed a meanness of spirit he’d kept under wraps until last Wednesday. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yet, despite the consensus that the last debate was, at best, a draw for the president, Kerry seems to have lost, not gained, ground particularly among women. Since little else has happened in the past week to move the polls, it’s a fairly safe bet that Kerry’s decision to use Dick and Lynne Cheney’s daughter Mary as a political tool had an impact, although not the one Kerry was looking for.

When Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) first brought up the Cheney’s daughter in the vice presidential debate, the Kerry campaign got the benefit of the doubt from the public and the vice president. Maybe it was just an off-the-cuff comment, we all thought.

My guess is that, deep down, Cheney wasn’t happy with it but refused to play Edwards’ game, effectively ending the discussion of his daughter before it began. A week later, however, when Kerry singled out Mary Cheney for a second time, the jig was up.

No one would have thought twice if he’d referenced Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.) or New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, both Democratic politicians who have openly acknowledged their sexual preference, when answering Bob Schieffer’s question about the cause of homosexuality. Instead, he chose to use the child of one of his political opponents and in doing so shattered a key rule of polite discourse in campaigns: Kids are off limits.

It didn’t happen by chance. Anybody who knows anything about campaign politics knew this was a cold, calculated, strategic move designed to drive a wedge between Bush and evangelical Protestant voters who overwhelmingly support the president. In an Oct. 1-3 Pew Research Center poll, Bush’s lead among this group was 69 percent to 17 percent.

If anyone still wondered whether the use of Mary Cheney as a campaign tactic was part of the Democrat’s campaign strategy, Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s campaign manager, provided the confirmation when she called the Cheney’s daughter “fair game” just minutes after the debate ended.

No one had to tell Lynne Cheney. She’s been around politics long enough to recognize a below-the-belt campaign tactic. She quickly (and understandably) weighed in, characterizing herself as “an indignant mom” and calling Kerry’s comment a “cheap and tawdry political trick.”

The following morning, despite heavy media criticism the night before, Elizabeth Edwards inexplicably went over the top, saying of Mrs. Cheney’s criticism, “I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences.” It was at that moment the Kerry campaign lost the argument.

That didn’t stop Kerry adviser Bob Shrum, appearing on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” from defending — after four days of negative media commentary — Kerry’s remark. Trying to justify Kerry’s blunder, Shrum argued that the vice president himself had raised his daughter’s sexual preference at a campaign appearance. True, but it was in response to a question about the gay issue. And more importantly, it was his daughter.

Cheney is also smart enough to know that if he hadn’t referenced his daughter that day, the Kerry crowd would have screamed that he was ashamed of her. We’ve seen that’s a line they’re fond of.

But what the Kerry campaign thought was going to be a shrewd tactical move seems to have backfired. In the latest Washington Post poll (Oct. 13-16), Bush went from being down 1 point, 47 percent to 48 percent, to up 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent. In the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll (Oct. 14-16), the race went from a dead heat, with both men drawing 48 percent, to a 3-point advantage for Bush, 49 percent to 46 percent.

In campaigns, like life, there are consequences to one’s actions. Kerry may be a great debater, but last Wednesday, he showed the women of America a different man — one willing to use the children of his opponents for the meanest political manipulation. He’s paying the price.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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