Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush pulled himself together sufficiently in St. Louis Friday night to avoid losing the presidency to John Kerry on debater's points, and got down to his foremost task. The Republican president concentrated on imprinting the scarlet letter "L" (for liberal) on his Democratic challenger's chest. Whether or not he succeeds may determine who is elected.

 It seems like a lifetime since July 1991 when Sen. Kerry declared: "I'm a liberal, and proud of it." Thirteen years later, the L-word is forbidden language for Kerry. He is attempting what only Bill Clinton among recent Democratic candidates has accomplished: covering left-of-center policies with a facade of moderation. Kerry, less skilled than Clinton as a political dancer, is burdened with a 30-year record of nearly unbroken liberal votes.

 What bothered Republican leaders nationwide about President Bush's performance in the first debate at Coral Gables, Fla., was not so much his bizarre body language as his failure to press the liberal label on Kerry. Bush was ready in St. Louis, with the line used 60 years ago by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis about challengers retreating from his lethal fists: "He can run, but he can't hide" -- referring to Kerry's desire to escape his voting record.

 The way this issue works was shown in the town-hall-style debate when selected questioner Sarah Degenhart asked Kerry for assurances that "tax dollars would not go to support abortion." He answered as he often does when he is on the wrong side in terms of national support. Not addressing the question of federal funding (which is unpopular), the senator made a Clinton-like gesture of feeling Sarah's pain. As a lifelong Catholic and former altar boy, he said, "I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins." But, he said, he could not impose his views on others.

 "I'm trying to decipher that," Bush cracked, perhaps contemplating laying into a star of the NARAL abortion lobby posing as an enemy of abortion. That move might have been unpresidential and counterproductive. Instead, he replied to the question: "My answer is we're not going to spend taxpayers' money on abortion." He then endorsed "the culture of life," drawing from Kerry a rebuke for being simplistic.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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