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Off the Cuff and Into the Crossfire

Kerry remark about 'crooked' and 'lying' opponents draws angry retorts from GOP. Comments may haunt the Democrat.

March 11, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — John F. Kerry leveled his harshest criticism yet at Republican critics Wednesday, accusing them of corrupt and deceitful behavior -- comments that some analysts warned could backfire on the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.

Kerry made his offhanded remark during a stop at a sheet-metal plant in Chicago. As he shook hands with workers, one urged him to stay on the offensive in his campaign.

"Oh yeah, don't worry, man," the Massachusetts senator said. "We're going to keep pounding, let me tell you.... These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen. It's scary."

The candidate, who had just finished delivering an address to the executive council of the AFL-CIO via satellite, still had a microphone clipped to his collar. His voice was picked up by television and radio stations plugged into the sound system.

Kerry spokesman David Wade said later that the senator was speaking about "the Republican attack machine," not President Bush personally. Added Wade: "We're making it very clear that [Kerry] is a Democrat who's punching back."

The remarks are the latest example of a general election campaign that is off to an unusually nasty and pointed start. Republicans responded to Kerry with barbs of their own Wednesday, calling him "relentlessly negative."

Kerry's remarks were the second time this week he had made an off-the-cuff comment some view as imprudent for a presidential candidate. On Monday, at a fundraiser in Florida, he told donors that foreign leaders had privately told him they wanted Bush ousted from the White House.

Political analysts warned that the language Kerry used Wednesday could come back to haunt him.

"This makes it hard to appear later that he's in any way above the fray and that the other side should be held accountable for taking the debate into the gutter," said Thomas Hollihan, an associate dean at USC's Annenberg School of Communication. "And when the attack comes from the candidate himself, then there's no distancing himself from the message at all."

Kerry's comments came on a day when his campaign hoped to emphasize unity in the Democratic Party, assembling reporters to witness former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean arriving for a private meeting with Kerry at his Washington campaign headquarters.

Since Dean and his other major opponents ended their candidacies, Kerry has adopted increasingly tough rhetoric, warning that the Republicans are going to try to "tear down my character."

"But I'm a fighter, as you know, and I'm ready for it," he told donors at a fundraiser in Hollywood, Fla., on Monday, where he made the remark that foreign leaders wanted him to win the election.

Kerry is trying to portray himself as a warrior who is stronger than Bush, said Joseph Tuman, who teaches political communication at San Francisco State.

"Kerry wants to force that comparison with voters at every opportunity he can get," Tuman said.

The administration has fired back. This week, Bush accused Kerry of supporting intelligence program spending cuts that would have undermined the country's defense. And Vice President Dick Cheney said the senator had demonstrated indecisiveness on national security issues.

On Wednesday, the Bush campaign was quick to denounce Kerry's latest remarks.

"At every turn, John Kerry has claimed to be the victim of an imaginary smear machine," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.

And the campaign's chairman, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, said Kerry's "statement today in Illinois was unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and tonight we call on Sen. Kerry to apologize to the American people for this negative attack."

Kerry did not take questions from reporters as his campaign plane flew from Chicago to Washington on Wednesday afternoon. Wade said the senator was busy reviewing briefings and planning a vacation he would be taking with his wife next week.

But Wade defended the candidate's comments, saying the Republicans "have waged the most crooked, deceitful, personal attacks over the course of the last four years."

When asked for examples of such behavior by the GOP, Wade mentioned doctored photos circulating on the Internet that depict Kerry sharing a podium with Jane Fonda at a rally protesting the Vietnam War. But the source of that photo has not been traced.

Wade also cited charges from some conservatives that Kerry's antiwar activism after he returned from service in Vietnam "gave comfort to the enemy."

And he said that Bush political advisor Karl Rove has a "well-earned" reputation for engaging in "political dirty tricks," and named conservative commentators Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh as part of the "Republican attack machine."

Coming almost eight months before election day, the rancorous back-and-forth between the campaigns threatens to alienate voters and increase negative perceptions of both candidates, political experts said.

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