Charles Krauthammer

Part of this is serendipity. After Dean and Gephardt destroyed each other with mutually negative ads in Iowa, the other candidates became terrified of saying anything even mildly negative about their opponents. They directed all of their fire not inside the corral, as is usual in a primary battle, but outside -- at the president. As the intra-Democratic campaign turned kid gloves, the main competition among the candidates consisted of who could be more hyperbolic in delineating the crimes of George W. Bush.

Part of this, too, is the candidates' exploitation of media conventions. The cable channels all covered the Tuesday night victory/concession speeches, which the candidates invariably turned into opportunities to deliver their stump speeches to a national cable audience. Dean's Iowa scream is the counterexample that makes the case. The rule is: Forget the crowd, face the camera and denounce the president.

And now, after six weeks of carpet-bombing Bush, the Democrats are shocked -- shocked! -- that the Republicans might answer back with ``negativity.''

What, in fact, have the Republicans mustered? A single Internet ad about Kerry, the Senate's king of special interest money, denouncing special interests. And one speech by the Republican National Committee chairman on Kerry's conventional liberal (i.e. budget-cutting) positions on defense and intelligence.

The Republicans have yet to go after Kerry on his most critical vulnerability, his breathtaking penchant for reversing course for political convenience:

-- Votes against the Gulf War, which he now says he favored.

-- Votes for the Iraq war, which he now says he opposed.

-- Votes against the $87 billion for troop support and Iraqi reconstruction, while saying that he favors troop support and Iraqi reconstruction.

-- Votes for No Child Left Behind, which he now attacks incessantly.

-- Votes for NAFTA; now rails against the unfairness of free trade.

-- Votes for the Patriot Act; now decries the assault on civil liberties.

Which is why Kerry prefers to pre-empt any examination of his record by warning in advance of a coming Republican ``smear campaign.''

It would be a clever attempt at political insulation were it not so transparent. Instead, coming after weeks of unrelenting anti-Bush calumny, it is an impressive display of chutzpah. Kerry may or may not win the presidency, but he has already won the 2004 Captain Renault award.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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