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Labeling Bernie

GOP Concedes It Can’t Tar Sanders With Liberal Tag

Republicans have decided that the usual tactic of branding their opponents as liberals will not work in the case of Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Instead, they are focusing on what they describe as his thin record in advance of next year’s Senate race.

The only problem with the initial efforts by the National Republican Senatorial Committee — say Sanders and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — is that the NRSC got its facts wrong.

The NRSC thinks it landed the first blow and said the DSCC — which is backing the unaffiliated lawmaker who caucuses with Democrats — is changing the subject.

“Is Sanders someone who is liked in Vermont and been re-elected with ease? Of course,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “So trying to tarnish him or telling the people of Vermont that he is a left-wing radical is not really going to turn heads because they already know that.”

Showing its hand early, the NRSC last week issued a news release calling Sanders “ineffective” and claiming that he has only passed one law in 14 years.

“We were floored when we saw his record,” Nick said. “When we were looking for vulnerabilities, it just leapt out at us so that’s what we will focus on.”

Sanders’ office responded that having one’s name in a law does not tell the whole picture and that Sanders’ ideas have translated into legislation in other ways, such as through the amendment process.

“Not only are they factually wrong in terms of the number of pieces of legislation that Sanders has passed, but they ignore whole categories of accomplishments,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders chief of staff.

During floor debate on July 22, 2003, for example, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Sanders “has been able to pass more amendments to appropriations bills the past two years than any other Member.”

Nick said that was a weak rebuttal.

“Our entire point has been that he has passed one bill in 14 years,” Nick said.

DSCC spokesman Phil Singer said the NRSC’s releases are misleading.

“It’s on par with only using triples to calculate a baseball players’ batting average,” Singer said. “At best it’s a negligent presentation of his record and at worse its intentionally misleading.”

Nick responded that the NRSC used Sanders’ own amendment count in its news release last week and that the whole point was “laughable” because amendments are procedural in nature and not a demonstration of effectiveness.

Weaver said that is untrue and unfair.

“The first thing they put out was ludicrous,” he said. Republicans have controlled the House since 1995; the first name on the bill is always a committee chairman so when you are in the minority” one has to legislate through amendments.

Sanders succeeded in altering the controversial USA Patriot Act in the House just last week — President Bush has threatened to veto attempts to change the law — through the amendment process.

While the two campaign committees will continue to spar over what constitutes legislating, both would likely agree that the high-profile contest to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) will continue at a fevered pitch.

“We didn’t expect it to start 16 months before the election,” Weaver said of the criticism.

The NRSC is operating on its own as no Republican has formally entered the race yet.

Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and business executive Richard Tarrant both sent staff members to the NRSC’s campaign school last week.

Dubie recently told a local paper that he and Tarrant are talking about how to avoid a primary. Dubie is also seen as a possible candidate for Sanders’ House seat, though Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, the head of the Vermont National Guard, is also considering that race.

“I think that’s something that will most likely be worked out in Vermont,” Nick said of efforts to keep both men from running. “At this point, they’re both just weighing their interest.”

Regardless, the NRSC is trying to pave the way for the eventual candidate by softening up Sanders and outlining a strategy.

“It certainly offers a lot in terms of an effective way to allow the people of Vermont to see an apples and oranges comparison,” Nick said.

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