By the end of the third session of the 2004 Democratic National Convention on Wednesday it seemed clear that the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket will fight Republicans until November over the meaning of a single word: "values."
Not that this will be the only, or even the main, theme of the fall campaign. This week's proceedings have hinted at other aspects of Democrats' strategy, from their mantra that Kerry is strong, strong, strong, (meaning, "able to handle Iraq and Al Qaeda"), to a subtle attempt to imply that a Kerry administration might be a relaxing change from the history-burdened years of Bush.
But with fewer swing voters than ever up for grabs this year, the Democratic Party appears determined to try and keep Republicans from portraying their candidates as pointy-headed liberals out of step with what mainstream America believes. A discussion about values was threaded throughout many speeches on Wedesday, with speaker after speaker asserting that Democrats know all about faith, family, and courage, too.
"We hear a lot of talk about values," said vice-presidential nominee John Edwards in Wednesday's climactic address. "Where I come from, you don't judge someone's values based on how they use that word in a political ad."
First, a little background might be in order. Many Democratic strategists believe that over recent decades their presidental candidates have often been at a disadvantage in a values debate. They feel that's mainly because Republican strategists have successfully turned the very word "values" into a kind of code. In this context, Democrats believe, to say a candidate doesn't "share your values' is to say that they are irreligious, and probably cowardly free-spenders to boot.
In particular many top Democrats remember the 1988 campaign with bitterness. They feel that George Herbert Walker Bush and his political director, the late Lee Atwater, ran a highly successful and somewhat underhanded values campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis
For instance, the GOP 1988 effort included the now-infamous Willie Horton ad, which charged Dukakis with allowing a recidivist African-American felon out on a weekend pass, during which he committed further crimes. Democrats charged that the ad was an underground appeal to race - but in the end it proved highly effective. (The Bush campaign itself, it must be noted, didn't produce the Horton ad. It came from an independent group called Americans for Bush, which was in turn an arm of the National Security Political Action Committee.)
Fast forward to today. Another Bush is running against another Massachusetts politician. Democrats have vowed that they will not be made out to be out-of-touch leftists again.
Their first line of defense is to associate values with military service. That's a strong point of Kerry's biography, of course. This week it's been seldom when ten minutes have passed during official proceedings without mention in some of way of Kerry's time in Vietnam.
"When a man volunteers to serve his country, volunteers and puts his life on the line for others - that's a man who represents real American values," said Sen. Edwards.
Their second line of defense is Edwards himself. Folksy, photogenic, a family man, self-made, he projects the image of someone who'd feel right at home at a small-town church supper. Edwards was introduced by his wife, who was in turn introduced by his daughter. The candidate thanked his parents - who were in attendence - at the beginning of his speech. At the end all his kids tumbled out on the stage.
Yet Edwards tried to do more than just point out the Democrats have families and go to chuch too. He attempted to lay some claim for the word to apply to issues on which Democrats typically have an advantage - specifically, on civil rights.
The candidate noted that he felt a personal responsibility on issues of race and equality and civil rights, and an obligation to talk about those issues everywhere.
"This is not an African-American issue, not a Latino issue, not an Asian-American issue, this is an American issue," said Edwards. "It's about who we are, what our values are, what kind of country we want to live in."
At a Monitor coffee on Tuesday, Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg said that he believes a 1988-style values campaign by the GOP would no longer be effective, no matter how the Democrats replied. He claims the country has shifted since then on values-related matters.
That doesn't mean he believes it's an obvious winning theme for his party. For instance, the important swing group of older blue collar workers might be inclined to vote Democratic this year, he said, because of negative trends in the economy. But he noted that those voters also tend to be anti-gay marriage - meaning they might still turn back to Republicans.
Overall, how did the key Wednesday night speakers do? In the hall, John Edwards much-anticipated address seemed a little flat. His cadence was off, and his speech contained sections on John Kerry and international realations that Edwards appeared to still be learning.
The best speaker on Wednesday? Al Sharpton, no question. He had the FleetCenter audience roaring as if the Bruins had won the Stanley Cup.
"I often hear the Republican party preach about family values, but I can tell them something about family values," said Rev. Sharpton. "Family values don't just exist for those with two-car garages and retirement homes. Family values exist in homes with only one parent in the household making a way against the odds."
Oh yes, values. Did we mention they talked a lot about that?