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Mary McGrory

Dirty-Bomb Politics

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, June 20, 2002; Page A23

If the mugging of Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia is a fair indicator of what is to come, the fall elections will be ugly. Cleland, a decorated veteran and triple amputee, was attacked by his Republican opponent, Rep. Saxby Chambliss, "for breaking his oath to protect and defend the Constitution."

Shades of Lee Atwater, the fabled Republican cutthroat politico who helped pilot the first President Bush to victory. But even Atwater might have hesitated before going after a man who lost both legs and an arm in the service of his country. Chambliss did not participate in Vietnam. He had a bad knee, he told columnist Mark Shields, who was the first to call national attention to Cleland's bizarre situation -- veterans whose war wounds confine them to wheelchairs are often given a pass on patriotism, especially by those who never wore the uniform.

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But Chambliss was not deterred. On May 16 he issued a press release about Cleland's insufficient contribution to the defense of his country: Cleland had voted for an amendment to the Chemical Weapons Treaty that eliminated a ban on citizens of terrorist nations being on U.N. inspection teams in Iraq. It was a majority vote, 56 to 44, and among those in support were Sen. Bill Frist, the stately chairman of the Senate Republican campaign committee who handpicked candidate Chambliss.

While the 55 other senators seem equally reprehensible and guilty of oath-breaking, Chambliss says through his campaign communications director, Michelle Hitt, that the majority was not "overwhelming," and that, although the aye-sayers merited the lash, Chambliss was letting them walk because "he is concerned only about how Sen. Cleland voted, which was contrary to the way Georgians would have voted."

Hitt says there has been little adverse criticism of Chambliss's dirty-bomb attack. Only the "Mark Shieldses of this world complain," she says. Conservative columnist Jim Wooten of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Chambliss had a right to reveal Cleland's voting record -- though it was never a secret.

Chambliss may have been under the influence of Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, a disciple of Lee Atwater, who has said from the first that the war on terrorism is a good issue for his party and can help close gaps such as Chambliss's 22-point deficit.

Throughout the country, patriotism, under Rove's coaching, has become the sub-theme of the campaign. The message is sometimes coded, sometimes not. It is not the first time a campaign has turned into a brawl over custody of the flag: Remember the senior Bush's melodramatic 1988 trip to a flag factory? In Iowa, Democrat Tom Harkin is getting clubbed by opponent Greg Ganske, who went at him on the flag-burning amendment. Harkin's record as a Navy pilot during Vietnam was no help to him in Ganske's attack on him for voting against the amendment. Ganske, although he is running as "a compassionate doctor," made a tacky jest about Harkin's recent operation for a cancer on his lip. Ganske promised that when he defeats Harkin, he will make sure Harkin has a lot of sunscreen "down there," presumably referring to Harkin's house in the Bahamas.

The chairs of the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees, Rep. Nita Lowey and Sen. Patty Murray, say their issues -- prescription drugs, patients' bill of rights, schools and jobs -- will prevail in November. Both have found on recent tours that Democrats are talking more about Social Security than about homeland security.

They advise candidates to do what they are already doing: getting close to Bush on the war on terror and protecting the country. House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt is going the distance. He has endorsed the invasion of Iraq and is pushing for passage of a homeland security bill by 9/11. Bush himself would be satisfied with the first of the year.

Questioning the president on anything -- on early knowledge of the attacks, exclusion of the FBI and CIA from the homeland security complex -- is considered risky business for Democrats. Said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida on "Face the Nation": "If the administration takes a stonewall position, and every word in their plan is biblical, and if you change it, you are unpatriotic."

Both Murray and Lowey say that an emerging issue that might work for them is increasing consternation about corporate greed. L. Dennis Kozlowski, who made a killing while running his company into the ground, makes people mad. They are interested in the safekeeping of their retirement funds.

It's too soon to say whether Rove will succeed in making the November vote into a referendum on the wartime leadership of George W. Bush. But the meanness has begun early and can only be expected to get worse.

Max Cleland -- and it's not his style -- has begun to quote Shakespeare in a line from "Romeo and Juliet": "He jests at scars that never felt the wound."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company