When Democrat John F. Kerry talks about gun control, he reminds his audiences that he is "a lifelong hunter and gun owner," just like millions of other Americans.
The other day, when Teresa Heinz Kerry she sat down with a gossip columnist for the New York Post, she fretted about the way her hair frizzes in the humidity and noted ruefully how she has gained 10 pounds on the campaign trail from the temptations of "quick snacks and junk food." Surely people everywhere could relate to the struggle.
Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, own five homes, including this house in Nantucket, Mass. Republicans are lampooning the couple's wealthy lifestyle.
(Rob Benchley -- AP)
The Kerrys recently have been reminding people that they have hobbies and foibles that would be familiar in any American household. It is an apparent response to a sustained effort by Republicans to tell people that, in many other ways, the presumptive Democratic nominee and his wealthy, foreign-born wife have lives far removed from the experience, or even the imagination, of most voters.
This battle over cultural identities has become an important second front in the presidential race. President Bush's campaign scores Kerry daily on conventional issues: national security, taxes and a liberal voting record. Meanwhile, a variety of surrogates and outside groups are amplifying and broadening this attack by using humor, insult and innuendo to portray the Kerrys as exotic figures whose rich lifestyle and cosmopolitan values leave them unable to understand ordinary Americans.
In the couple of months since Kerry effectively locked up the Democratic nomination, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans asserted that Bush's opponent "looks French." The conservative group Citizens United ran a television commercial last month highlighting his $75 haircuts and "four lavish mansions and beachfront estate." When Kerry this month unveiled his "misery index" to highlight what he calls Bush's economic failures, the Republican National Committee gleefully countered with its own mocking "Index de le Miserables." Conservative commentators chortled at news that Teresa Kerry had helped design an official scarf for her husband's campaign.
The RNC did the same with her comment comparing her husband to a "good wine," and recently it helped fan the controversy over her refusal to release her tax returns, which would obviously offer yet a new reminder of what is already well known: Her first marriage left her one of the nation's wealthiest women.
The Massachusetts senator's own tax returns produced a gem that delighted opponents no end: He made $175,000 last year, more than his Senate salary, from the sale of a seascape painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Adam Willaerts. The Web site of radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, himself a wealthy man, includes pictures of the Kerrys' properties, with captions offered in English or French. "Working Americans need not apply," the narration warns.
"It's a core part of their strategy; They're trying to pry him from the mainstream of the country," Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald, who is not affiliated with the Kerry campaign, said of the Republican strategy. Cumulatively, she said, the wisecracks and insults are an effort to say "they want him to be snooty and aloof and effete: 'George Bush is a real guy and John Kerry isn't. John Kerry is a fop.' "
The campaign to portray Kerry as culturally out of touch because of his privileged youth and current wealth is replete with ironies. Bush, a son of one of America's most successful political dynasties, and Vice President Cheney are both multimillionaires. Republicans, on policy grounds, have no objection to vacation houses or inherited wealth; Bush has led an effort to eliminate the estate tax, which is paid mostly by the wealthy.
But the competition over which candidate will score better on one of the most common questions asked by pollsters -- who "understands the problems of people like you" -- is influenced by many factors. Some are economic, others more impressionistic.
For now, Kerry is winning the contest. A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month found that 51 percent of the people surveyed agreed that Kerry understands their problems, while 40 percent said he does not. Forty-one percent said Bush understands their problems, while 57 percent said he does not. The latter sentiment, part of a larger perception that Bush's policies favor the rich, has been one of his biggest vulnerabilities in polls throughout his presidency.
Some Democratic strategists believe the effort to infuse Kerry's reputation with a certain hauteur -- and to turn him into an absurd figure -- is designed to blunt this advantage. Republicans do not exactly deny it.
"We've certainly had some fun with the Scaramouche," Kerry's 42-foot-long powerboat, said Christine Iverson, the RNC spokeswoman. "But John Kerry's biggest problem is not that he owns a yacht and five homes. His biggest problem is his voting record."
A Democratic strategist who has seen polling data in battleground states worried that the main attack on Kerry, as an equivocating politician who would raise taxes, is being reinforced by attacks on his purported jet-set values. Cumulatively, this Democrat said, the criticism has done damage -- but not irreparable damage -- to Kerry's image.