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Parties Defined by Where They See the Enemies


CHICAGO — "You can judge a president by the enemies he's willing to make," Vice President Al Gore declared in his speech to the Democratic convention.

And, he might have added, you can just as easily judge a presidential contender by the enemies that he targets.

At their just-concluded national conventions, both parties worked to define their nominees by setting them in counterpoint to a list of political enemies. At a time when voters appear to be recoiling from direct attacks by politicians on their opponents, each party sought to play a kind of bank shot, weakening their rivals by associating them with groups the public may view with suspicion and questioning their willingness to rise above special interests to represent the national interest.

Republicans linked President Clinton to teachers' unions (and, more broadly, union bosses), trial lawyers and, in a general way, to the forces of sexual and social liberation that have transformed American culture in the past three decades. Democrats last week wrapped Republican nominee Bob Dole in the arms of the National Rifle Assn., the tobacco industry, polluters and the Republican Congress led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

In both cases, the targets that the parties spared were just as revealing. Worried about the gender gap, Republicans focused much less fire on feminists and abortion-rights advocates than conservatives often do. Even more strikingly, the Democrats last week uttered hardly a peep of criticism of either big business or religious conservatives--two targets that don't fit into Clinton's centrist, non-populist, family-focused reelection strategy.

Compared to 1994, when anger at Clinton's efforts to expand government inspired an outpouring of grass-roots energy on the right, some consultants in both parties say they think that Democrats may have a more resonant set of opponents to play off against this fall.

Voter Targets

When voters were asked in a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg which groups' influence on the parties they most feared, tobacco companies topped the list, with the NRA finishing in the middle of the pack; lower still were Democratic allies like unions and gay-rights advocates. (Also generating little concern were religious conservatives.)

"If voters view the parties by their opponents," said one GOP operative, "it's pretty clear who has the better enemies this cycle."

At least during the prime-time TV hours, when they had the largest audiences, neither convention was particularly vitriolic in attacking anyone. Both parties were mindful of focus-group research showing that voters, especially independents, dislike partisan attacks and yearn for leaders who can reach across party lines.

But within those constraints, both sides managed to land a pattern of blows that traced a revealing outline of their election strategies.

In choosing their targets, the Republicans hope to challenge Clinton's portrayal of himself as a moderate. By linking Clinton to teachers' unions, Dole and other Republicans aim to raise doubts about the president's willingness to reform education, particularly by providing parents with vouchers for private schools, a proposal that teachers' unions loathe. And by tying the president to trial lawyers, the GOP seeks to question Clinton's willingness to reform the civil justice system.

"The teachers' unions and trial lawyers are good targets because . . . Clinton can't move to the center on those issues," said Fred Steeper, a Republican pollster advising Dole.

Unions and NRA

In targeting "union bosses," Republicans hope to send an ideological message but also open a wedge between the leadership of organized labor, which has launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to oust the GOP from control of Congress, and rank-and-file members, many of whom have previously supported GOP candidates.

The Democrats targeted a contrasting set of enemies at their convention. Although Gingrich fits into a separate category, and actually received surprisingly light treatment during prime time, the principal Democratic targets were all groups that raise concerns among the suburban, married voters who are the main focus of the Clinton campaign.

At the top of the target list was the NRA.

"The gun lobby is wrong," gun-control advocate Sarah Brady said Monday night.

Unless the government stands up "to special interests like the NRA leadership, we are not going to have safety on our streets," congressional candidate Carolyn McCarthy said Tuesday night.

Clinton "took on the gun lobby . . . and he won," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) Wednesday night.

One Republican pollster said this wasn't a surprise, given the Clinton campaign's goal of swelling the gender gap. "If you want to polarize women, the gun stuff is a very, very effective argument . . . because women just don't understand why you need big weaponry," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

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