Patriotism becomes nasty campaign issue

Candidates from both parties openly question their rivals' love of country.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Anne Sumers, the Democrat vying for retiring House Rep. Marge Roukema's seat in New Jersey, boasts a unique qualification: As a teenager, she spent several years living in Afghani-stan, where her father worked for the University of Kabul.

So in the days following Sept. 11, Ms. Sumers posted a message on a website for Americans in Afghanistan, expressing horror at the attacks but also decrying the dangers of "jingoistic 'patriotism'" in the US. That was all it took for her opponent, Republican Scott Garrett, to label her "radical" and "anti-American."

The charges may not stick – Sumers's campaign organizers say her comments were taken out of context, and the local media have largely ignored them – but she's hardly the only candidate whose love of country has been challenged in this election cycle.

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Indeed, in the latest example of how the war on terror is insinuating itself into the political landscape, questions of patriotism are cropping up in a number of races. Challengers are pointedly scrutinizing incumbents' past votes on red-white-and-blue matters from defense spending to flag burning, accusing their opponents of being "antimilitary" or failing to protect their country.

While patriotism has always been a backdrop of political campaigns, analysts say that in the wake of Sept. 11 it has become a theme in its own right – and more potent grounds for attack.

Still, challenging an opponent's patriotism is a risky tactic, since voters are likely to find such charges offensive if they view them as unwarranted. "You'll have more of these attacks," predicts Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "But I'd be willing to bet, in most cases, the attacks won't work and may even backfire."

Lawmakers from both parties are working hard to burnish their patriotic images, as the recent flap over the Pledge of Allegiance demonstrated. This month, after an appeals court ruled the pledge unconstitutional, Democrats and Republicans in Congress stampeded to its defense, overwhelmingly passing a resolution in favor of it, and reciting it together on the floor of the House.

In general, however, the patriotism issue may favor the GOP, since voters see that party as stronger on national security and defense. And Republicans tend to be quicker to raise the issue – as they did last month, when Democratic lawmakers asking what the president knew before Sept. 11 found their patriotism challenged by some GOP members. (Democrats indignantly shot back that such queries were the height of patriotism, motivated, they insisted, by love of country.)

But attacks aren't always falling along typical party lines. Several have lately been launched by same-party candidates facing off in primary battles.

In Georgia, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) faces a challenge from a fellow Democrat on the basis of a remark she made earlier this year which implied that President Bush had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. In a rare move, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (D) has backed Rep. McKinney's challenger, former judge Denise Majette.

"In a time of war, when the nation is threatened, there is obviously more sensitivity about comments that seem to favor the other side," says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster in Atlanta.

In the recent GOP runoff in the South Carolina governor's race, Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler attacked fellow Republican Mark Sanford as "antimilitary" and "antiveteran," pointing to several of the former congressman's votes against defense-spending measures. But Peeler's attacks didn't propel him to victory – and may even have backfired, as he lost to Sanford.

Questioning a candidate's voting record is fair game as a campaign tactic – "as long as you don't distort it," says Professor Sabato; "that will cause a backlash."

Another such backlash recently occurred, he says, in the Georgia Senate race, after GOP Rep. Saxby Chambliss accused Sen. Max Cleland (D) of breaking his oath to defend the Constitution with a 1997 vote on an amendment to the Chemical Weapons treaty. (The amendment, which passed, eliminated a ban on certain nations being part of UN inspections teams in Iraq.)

The remark drew a wave of criticism, given Senator Cleland's strong record of military service (a Vietnam veteran, he lost both legs and an arm in the war), and Mr. Chambliss wound up insisting to columnist Mark Shields that he never meant to malign his opponent's patriotism.

Some analysts suggest that war-hero candidates like Cleland may be in the strongest position of all this election cycle – regardless of which party they're in. Indeed, candidates from both parties with military backgrounds aren't hesitating to emphasize that experience.

"Ever since Sept. 11, we've noticed that a military background – particularly combat experience – is one of the most prominent positives for candidates," says Mr. Ayres. "In the past, it was not a significantly positive factor."

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