WASHINGTON — A key part of President Bush's message for the final weeks of the campaign is starting to sound like a schoolyard taunt: Kerry is a liberal! Kerry is a liberal!
Democrat John F. Kerry's response at the final presidential debate Wednesday sometimes sounded like the political equivalent of: So? You wanna make something of it?
Kerry has unflinchingly embraced the liberal pillars of the Great Society and the New Deal, calling for an expansion of Medicaid, keeping Social Security in its current form, and using the levers of government to help the middle class and the disadvantaged. He has backed higher taxes for the rich, affirmative action and an increase in the minimum wage.
All that gave Bush a wide opening to attack Kerry at the debate as residing on the "far left bank" of the mainstream.
A broader look at Kerry's record in the Senate and his promises in campaign speeches reveal a more complex picture. His generally liberal profile is leavened by doses of centrism in his support for free trade, welfare reform, tax cuts for the middle class and a healthcare plan that is more incremental than many liberals have advocated in the past.
The Bush campaign is betting that by focusing on his most liberal views, it can do to Kerry what Bush's father did to Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 campaign -- portray the Democratic nominee as too left-wing to lead a country with values more traditional than those in his native Massachusetts.
That is a shift from the Bush campaign's monthslong effort to portray Kerry as an indecisive flip-flopper and to undercut his credibility as a potential commander-in-chief.
The new line of attack on Kerry as a liberal represents "a new front" and an effort to "revive the campaign for the next three weeks," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said.
Kerry eschewed ideological labels in the second debate. But he also is shying away from highlighting his occasional departures from liberal ideology in the final days of a campaign that will hinge largely on turnout among the two parties' most faithful supporters.
In order to win more conservative and swing voters, "the Kerry campaign could be more aggressive in underscoring his departures from the orthodoxy in his party," said Will Marshall, a strong Kerry supporter who is president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "But the way this race has shaped up, the premium is on making a strong case for why Bush should be fired and maintaining a maximum degree of Democratic harmony and unity."
The outcome of the election will hinge, in part, on whether the liberal label will be as much of a boogeyman as it was in 1988. Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been urging the Bush camp to take this line of attack against Kerry, is confident it can be.
"No Democrat has been defined as an open liberal and won a presidential election since 1964," he said. "Kerry says labels are misleading because he understands labels are the end of his campaign."
But Michael Meehan, a top Kerry strategist, said the candidate's plans for the future would have more impact on voters.
"In American presidential politics, some labels have been used to demonize opponents for decades," Meehan said. "At this point in the presidential campaign, what's more important is what you are doing going forward than name-calling."
One of Bush's first stabs at portraying Kerry as an extreme leftist came in the second debate, when he said that the National Journal had identified him as the most liberal Democrat in the Senate. That was misleading because Kerry won that designation in 2003, when his presidential campaign kept him away from so many roll call votes that it was an atypical year.
Still, by other measures, Kerry's Senate voting record is consistently liberal, even if he does not rank as No. 1. The Americans for Democratic Action, which tracks voting records on issues liberals care most about, gives Kerry a lifetime score of voting the liberal position 93% of the time, a little higher than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the icon of the left, whose lifetime score is 90%.
That is the basis for Bush saying in Thursday's debate that Kennedy is the "conservative senator from Massachusetts." But that still does not make Kerry the most liberal senator: 12 others were more consistently liberal than him in the lifetime ratings scored by the Americans for Democratic Action.
Sprinkled through Kerry's career are occasions when he was at odds with his party's left wing. He supported the 1996 overhaul of welfare that was backed by President Clinton and other centrist "New Democrats," but opposed by many liberals who considered its work requirements too stringent.
He has voted in favor of expanded international trade, parting ways with labor unions. He voted in 2002 for a bill increasing presidential power to negotiate trade agreements.