The only Kerry aide on the plane who wanted the senator to quickly issue an apology for any perceived insult was senior adviser Mike McCurry, the former Clinton spokesman who is a calm, cool voice among the overheated Kerryites. McCurry was alone. The Kerry brain trust argued that the Bush people were even nastier, and this was no time to be soft.
Instead of an apology, the rhetoric escalated. Democrats outside the campaign were stunned by the words that followed. Kerry's usually serene campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill referred to Mary Cheney as "fair game." The peak in meanness was attained by Elizabeth Edwards, the motherly wife of vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. She contended the outburst against Kerry by Mary's mother, Lynne, "indicates a certain degree of shame" toward her daughter. It is difficult to exaggerate Mrs. Cheney's outrage over Mrs. Edwards's suggestion of a mother's non-support for her daughter.
Most of the Kerry camp, desensitized by political combat, saw nothing wrong with all this. His aides could find fault only with Lynne Cheney, because she was enraged by the sight of Kerry invoking her daughter's name and then professing to read Mary's mind and express her thoughts.
Overnight polls by several organizations last Thursday night indicated a little slip by Kerry replacing a virtual deadlock between the candidates that followed the first debate. Pollster John Zogby's nightly tracking last week for the first time showed a few Democrats moving from Kerry to Bush. When Mary Cheney was mentioned, "soft Kerry" voters at pollster Frank Luntz's Arizona debate focus group for the first time electronically indicated displeasure with the senator. It was a mistake by John Kerry, and it might well prove a serious one.