The late Lee Atwater pulled the first George Bush from a 17-point deficit to a clear victory in the 1988 election. A relentless political strategist, Atwater was brilliant at finding killer issues that buried political opponents.

Atwater told his campaign's crack research director, Jim Pinkerton, to assemble his staff of "35 excellent nerds" to unearth the attacks that could defeat Democrat Michael Dukakis. Pinkerton was instructed to fit them all on a 3-by-5 card. Atwater generously allowed his lanky top nerd to use both sides of the card.

The nerds' exertions produced this: Dukakis was a "high-tax, high-spending" governor who opposed nearly every defense program. The Massachusetts governor was skeptical of the Monroe Doctrine. He was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" who opposed the death penalty. He presided over a flawed prison furlough program that let a convicted murderer out of prison, and he vetoed a bill requiring students to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Atwater's spirit is hovering around this year's campaign, and the Democrats need to sleuth out the content of the 3-by-5 card on John Kerry. Begin with the obvious. In 1988 then-Vice President Bush's stump speech spoke of "a wide chasm" on "the question of values between me and the liberal governor whom I'm running against." Changing the word "governor" to "senator" gives you the core message of the fourth Bush campaign.

But Atwater always knew that "values" campaigns were tricky. That's why he spoke with admiration of Ronald Reagan's deftness. "One of the things Reagan did so well," Atwater once said, "was that he often took very conservative positions on social issues, but at the same time he was able to establish the fact that he was a very tolerant man."

During this week's debate over a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, the current President Bush executed a similar move, but with great awkwardness. Yes, Bush said that "what they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do."

Yet the amendment itself was inherently awkward. It pushed the debate away from a more favorable ground for Republicans -- whether "judges" or "voters" should decide the gay marriage question. The argument instead was about whether the Constitution should be used to impose national rules on marriage, a subject traditionally regulated by the states. My hunch is that Atwater, the blues-guitar-playing student of popular culture, would have agreed with those conservatives who thought the push for this amendment was at best premature.

But other Bush attacks are right out of the Atwater playbook. Bush has developed a nice, light formula for pushing his "flip-flop" charge against Kerry. "If you disagree with John Kerry on most any issue," Bush told a crowd in Waukesha, Wis., this week, "you may just have caught him on the wrong day." Atwater would warn the Democrats to watch their backs on this one.

On the central issue of the campaign, Bush is understandably pushing the Iraq debate away from the specific -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, poor postwar planning, etc. -- to the general plane of character and toughness. Bush is using a zinger aimed at all soft and elitist believers in psychobabble. "You can't negotiate with terrorists," Bush says. "You can't sit back and hope that somehow therapy will work and they will change their ways."

Bush even suggests subtly that if the voters toss him from office, they will fail the values test by breaking the country's commitments. The reformist leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush says, "need to hear from America that they can count on the American people. You see, when we give our word, we keep our word." Message: Keep your country's promise. Vote for Bush.

Republican pollster David Winston's helpful definition of the two types of "values" arguments is a good guide to which Atwateresque moves might work this year. There are "values you default to that are appealing to your base, which tend to reinforce an existing belief." And "there are values that are oriented to the middle which tend to be fundamentally optimistic and designed to solve a problem."

Bush risks pushing too hard on the first kind of values issues, as he did on the gay marriage amendment. But in trying to paint Kerry as weak, vacillating and unprepared to lead the country in the war on terrorism, Bush is reaching for a much broader audience. Atwater and his excellent nerds would happily put that argument on a 3-by-5 card. That should be enough to make Kerry's campaign take it seriously.

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