MILWAUKEE, Sept. 14 -- Forget soccer moms and NASCAR dads. The most important demographic in these parts transcends gender and geography -- it's Green Bay Packers fans.
Both candidates are targeting them with the ferocity of a Brett Favre bullet, but only John F. Kerry has fumbled the name of the hallowed grounds on which the Packers play, the frozen tundra of Curly Lambeau Field.
At a campaign event last month, the Democratic presidential nominee called it Lambert Field -- a slip of the tongue carried on television, in papers throughout the state and on ESPN's Web site.
That's akin to calling the Yankees the Yankers or the Chicago Bulls the Bells. This is a place where Packers jackets often outnumber sports coats in church and thousands of fans wear a big chunk of yellow foam cheese atop their head with the pride of a new parent. President Bush's warning to terrorists is apropos to the passions of Packers fans -- you are either with 'em or against 'em.
"I got some advice for him," Bush told Wisconsinites a few days after the Lambert gaffe. "If someone offers you a cheesehead, don't say you want some wine, just put it on your head and take a seat at Lambeau Field." Vice President Cheney made the obligatory pilgrimage to Green Bay last week to pile on. "I thought after John Kerry's visit here I'd visit Lambert Field," Cheney told a crowd at a Republican fundraising dinner Thursday night. Then he went in for the kill. "The next thing is he'll be convinced Vince Lombardi is a foreign leader."
Perhaps Lombardi, the Hall of Fame coach who put Titletown on the map in the 1960s, is working from the beyond the grave to trip up the Massachusetts senator. After all, Richard M. Nixon considered Lombardi as his running mate in 1968. There's one problem with this: Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat. In fact, the Kennedys' connection to the Green and Gold runs even deeper. In 1955, Packers Coach Lisle Blackbourn flirted with a talented young pro prospect in Massachusetts: Ted Kennedy, who now plays offensive line for the Kerry campaign.
Still, it might take more than the Kennedy mystique to put the "Lambert" moment behind Kerry -- a moment Kerry aides call a slip of the tongue. The Bush campaign is planning to rehash the comment until Election Day as a way of portraying Kerry as detached from the beer-drinking, bratwurst-eating folks of Wisconsin. College Republicans in Madison, where Kerry will visit Wednesday, are planning to greet him with a new sign: "It's Lambeau, Stupid!"
"He tries [too] hard to fit in with Wisconsinites, and he fumbles every time," said Jennifer Millerwise, a Bush campaign spokeswoman. "He should stick to windsurfing analogies -- only problem for Senator Kerry is that most people watch the Packers on Sunday."
This strategy is not confined to Cheeseland either. Republicans poked fun of Kerry for talking about the Buckeyes (of Ohio State University) while visiting arch rival Michigan (home of the Wolverines). These seemingly innocuous digs fit into a larger Bush-Cheney plan of fashioning the president as a common man and Kerry as a pandering patrician.
Kerry's slip is rookie stuff compared with Bush's verbal blunders, including his famous creation of the word "misunderestimated."
And David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said Packers fans will see the failed "playbook" of the Republicans. "Any Packers fan knows . . . Bush has fumbled on Iraq, did a double reverse on the assault weapons ban and dropped the ball on health care." Then Wade went personal. "I don't think we need any lectures in sports from a former cheerleader," referring to one of Bush's activities while at prep school.
So, could a candidate lose the state by tripping over the name of a stadium? Probably not, though Al Gore won Wisconsin by only a few thousand votes in 2000 and small shifts can make a big difference in this battleground state this year, state political observers say. "It sort of plays into the perception, right or wrong, that people think John Kerry is an opportunist who when he is not out windsurfing comes in to try to be a regular guy," said Ken Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. The latest polls show Kerry down eight points; he was tied in most polls before the gaffe.
Cheney, by comparison, hit all the right notes when he visited Green Bay last week, according to local papers. Not only did he speak to the biggest issue in the state -- the Packers -- he did so with Bart Starr, the Hall of Fame quarterback, by his side. "I've never been around someone I was more impressed with," Starr said of Cheney. The QB and VP also visited the Packers Hall of Fame, footsteps from the stadium.
In a campaign stop here Tuesday, Kerry looked to regain his footing. Speaking to a small group of seniors, nine hours after the Packers defeated the National Football Conference champion Carolina Panthers, 24-14, Kerry said he "got in town last night in time to watch the Pack," though he landed well into the third quarter. It was among his biggest applause lines. "So I know you would all be in a good mood today."
In the end, it's the Packers' score -- more than the Packers vote -- that could determine Kerry's fate. In the past 18 presidential elections, if the Redskins lost or tied the last game before the election, the party in the White House lost, too. The Redskins' opponent Oct. 31: the Packers, but not at Lambert, er, Lambeau Field.