A whiff of the desperate in Bush-Cheney ad

Published July 6, 2004 2:20PM (EDT)

Bush-Cheney '04 is providing some counterprogramming to the Kerry-Edwards show -- an ad featuring John McCain called "First Choice." It refers to talks between John Kerry and John McCain of forming a bipartisan ticket, which, according to some reports, McCain ultimately rejected, although the Washington Post quoted McCain's chief of staff as saying his boss "has never been offered the vice presidency by anyone."

The McCain-was-first theme is the main GOP talking point for the day, and it bears more than a whiff of desperation. When faced with a popular, youthful, persuasive, fresh Democratic voice in John Edwards -- who will offer quite a contrast to Dick Cheney when the debates roll around -- the Republicans are forced to resort to an ad featuring a leading Republican who has made news this year for his barely veiled criticisms of Bush and his statements of support for his good friend John Kerry.

Judy Woodruff just reported on CNN that McCain's office confirmed they were notified that his campaign appearance for Bush last week would appear in a Bush-Cheney ad, but McCain also pointed out that he remains close friends with both Kerry and Edwards and doesn't plan to criticize either one of them. Meanwhile, a posting on the blog Eschaton unearths a quote from McCain saying Edwards has "the ambition, the talent and the brains to go very far, to be president of the United States." (Later in the day, McCain said of Edwards: "I think he's a good man and will add to the ticket. I'm supporting and campaigning for President Bush but enjoyed working with Sen. Edwards." And after Democrats released their own ad featuring McCain and his differences with Bush, McCain even poked a bit of fun at a familiar Bush slogan, calling himself a "uniter not a divider" for providing both campaigns with ad fodder.) Is this the best spokesman/attack dog Bush-Cheney '04 can come up with on the first day of the newly unveiled Democratic ticket?

It's fascinating to watch the Bush campaign use McCain now for its purposes when the Karl Rovian smear campaign against McCain in 2000 is still so fresh in many minds. It was Bush's fear that the popular, maverick Arizona senator was then "first choice" of many Republicans that led to dirty tricks against McCain. As McCain's former campaign manager remembered it:

"In South Carolina, Bush Republicans were facing an opponent who was popular for his straight talk and Vietnam war record. They knew that if McCain won in South Carolina, he would likely win the nomination. With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal. The situation was ripe for a smear."

"It didn't take much research to turn up a seemingly innocuous fact about the McCains: John and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter named Bridget. Cindy found Bridget at Mother Theresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, brought her to the United States for medical treatment, and the family ultimately adopted her. Bridget has dark skin."

"Anonymous opponents used 'push polling' to suggest that McCain's Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the 'pollster' determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator."

"Thus, the 'pollsters' asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that's not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign."

"Some aspects of this smear were hardly so subtle. Bob Jones University professor Richard Hand sent an e-mail to 'fellow South Carolinians' stating that McCain had 'chosen to sire children without marriage.' It didn't take long for mainstream media to carry the charge. CNN interviewed Hand and put him on the spot: 'Professor, you say that this man had children out of wedlock. He did not have children out of wedlock.' Hand replied, 'Wait a minute, that's a universal negative. Can you prove that there aren't any?'"

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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