Early signs of a 'values' campaign
Iraq and the economy remain the big issues, but both Bush and Kerry are making social issues central themes.
WASHINGTON — In recent days, the 2004 presidential campaign has focused on the meaning of one word: "values."
Iraq, terrorism, and the economy still come up, of course. Polls show those big issues dominating voters' concerns.
But President Bush and presumed challenger Sen. John Kerry have made values an overarching theme of their early summer political appearances, each for his own reason. To the GOP, references to restrictions on abortion, opposition to gay marriage, and other positions on hot-button social issues may be a way of keeping core conservative voters happy while attempting to woo some conservative Democrats.
To Democrats, talk of values may be a form of defense - an attempt to redefine an overall issue, while trying to foil efforts to portray their ticket as a pair of liberals out of touch with mainstream America.
"On some of the values terrain, candidates look to win. On other parts of the terrain, they seek to just not lose," says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.
This week's Senate debate on same-sex marriage, and whether it should be banned by way of an amendment to the Constitution, reflected the GOP values agenda.
The issue did not come to a final up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. It was blocked prior to that point by a 50-48 Senate procedural vote, so neither Senator Kerry nor running mate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was forced to go on record as opposing a measure supported by many cultural conservatives.
Still, Bush promoted the amendment in his radio address last week. It gave him a talking point to use in his swing this week through the upper Midwest, and he could win points with his base just for raising an issue they care passionately about. Overall Bush told audiences in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and in Wisconsin that the GOP was the party that reflected their deep-set beliefs. He ridiculed Kerry's recent assertion that he is a man of "conservative values."
"We're strong because of the institutions that help give us direction and purpose: our families, our schools, and our religious institutions," he told a cheering Wisconsin crowd.
In part, Bush may be mentioning traditional Republican values issues to shore up his base. While the vast majority of GOP voters support Bush, not all support him as enthusiastically as the campaign would like - and keeping core adherents happy is the first rule of electoral politics.
"The polling we're doing in battleground states shows [Bush] is weakening somewhat among Republicans," says Dick Bennett, an independent New Hampshire-based pollster for the American Research Group.
The values mantra has been a powerful one for Republicans since at least 1980, when Ronald Reagan promised to make Americans feel good about themselves and their country again.
Bush wants to attract socially conservative, blue-collar Democrats - as Mr. Reagan famously did. That may be another reason for the GOP to join in the battle on this theme. It is a way to try to overcome a hesitation to support Bush among some swing voters who are dissatisfied with Iraq, or the economy, but aren't sure about the Democratic ticket.
"He's essentially saying, ignore the job I'm doing, but I'll be better on these issues than Kerry," says Mr. Bennett.
Sen. Kerry, for his part, is not ceding this ground. If anything, the Democrats are making an attempt to redefine the values debate a centerpiece of their campaign. "We have a campaign that is proactively taking on the Republicans," says Democratic strategist Jenny Backus.
The point, say Democrats, is that the word "values" should not just be a Republican code that means opposition to abortion, opposition to gun control, and support of prayer in schools.
Sen. Kerry has called such positions "little political hot-button, cultural, wedge-driven, poll-driven values" in recent interviews. Inclusion and fairness are also values, point out Democrats.
"The value of truth is one of the most central values in America, and this administration has violated it," Kerry told The Washington Post during his series of talks with reporters over the weekend.
The Kerry campaign appears to be experimenting with a number of approaches to this issue, say some political scientists. They may be attempting to avoid the implications of being defined as liberals by their opponents.
Among other things the Democrats may still be struggling with how to strike the right balance when talking about matters of faith.
"Clearly there are people around Kerry that think it's important to not cede religious matters and faith to the Republicans by being silent," says John Green of the University of Akron.