Let's not get lathered up worrying about what Sen. John Kerry meant when he contrasted the value of book learning to the value of getting shot at in a foreign war. Instead let's assess the public reaction and its possible impact on Tuesday's elections.
Parsing Kerry's words is a waste of time. Did he mean a lack of education might make one, like George W. Bush, an ignorant warmonger? Or only that hard work and hitting the books will keep one far away from the violent desert sands of volatile Iraq? Most informed speculators have adopted the second interpretation. But who knows?
Kerry blundered badly, and that's the point. He canceled campaign appearances with Democratic candidate hopefuls. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton -- probably for her own opportunistic reasons -- called for Kerry to apologize to American troops. Finally he did.
By now, quick Internet distribution and TV broadcasts have made common currency of the photograph of U.S. troops forming a line in the sand (literally) and holding a banner that reads, "Halp Us Jon Carry We R Stuck (c and k printed backward) in Irak."
The soldiers' message was clear, and apparently so was John Kerry's. Yes, he might have simply left out words from his statement that would have made it clear he was talking only about the president. No matter. These troops and their families took Kerry's "joke" as a direct insult. Unfortunately for Kerry's Democratic Party, a fair number of otherwise unmotivated Republican voters, and some independent ones, likely took offense, too.
The pregnant question now is whether the Kerry goof will rescue an entire election for the GOP. Perhaps not. Still, it has unquestionably put the brakes on the alleged Republican freefall that pollsters and pundits have been declaring for weeks. At the least, the senator's remarks might reverse Democratic fortunes in scattered close races, especially in the South.
Look at the places President Bush has campaigned in the last week. One key congressional race is in Georgia's District 12. Our latest InsiderAdvantage survey showed former Republican Congressman Max Burns barely trailing incumbent Democrat John Barrow.
In the same state, Bush also stopped off to help former Congressman Mac Collins as he tries to unseat Democrat Jim Marshall.
As little as a month ago, neither of these Republicans was given a chance of winning. But both of these districts have strong military ties and big blocs of independent swing voters. Deft use of Kerry's remarks could be the fillip needed to energize disenchanted Republican or lethargic independent voters to weigh in for the pro-military Republicans.
In Florida, the topsy-turvy race to replace resigned and disgraced Republican Congressman Mark Foley is suddenly being viewed by top political analysts as up for grabs. That, even though Foley resigned too late to take his name off the ballot and substitute the name of the Republican replacing him as the candidate. That means state Rep. Joe Negron must persuade voters to check the name of the now-reviled Foley in order to elect Negron. But it's a Republican district, and the electric voltage of Kerry's misstep could persuade voters to reject the conservative Democrat Tim Mahoney.
Then there's Tennessee. Democratic Congressman Harold Ford Jr. is in a nationally prominent battle against Republican and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. Within 24 hours of Kerry's statement, Ford was distancing himself from Kerry's remarks in a big way.
Ford has slipped slightly in the last week's polls. The last thing he needs is to be defending John Kerry instead of attacking Bob Corker. Complicating matters for Ford, he's trying to become an African-American, Democratic senator in a Deep South state. That's news in itself. He doesn't need bad news creeping in from points north.
In today's political world, major gaffes become minor blips overnight. Kerry's ill-spoken words may get drowned in a cascade of negative TV ads and the overwhelming volume of political news in these last days before the election.
The task at hand for the Republicans is to be bold enough to take Kerry's statement to the airwaves and into the field for grassroots, get-out-the-vote efforts. They might do well to recognize the power of images over mere words, or, in this case, an image of words -- misspelled words. Those soldiers' banner could become history if it makes for a surprise banner year for Republicans. Regardless, the Democrats aren't likely to soon turn to John Kerry for any more "halp."