WASHINGTON -- John Kerry clearly felt he was riding high in the final presidential debate last week at Tempe, Ariz., when he impulsively and inexplicably noted that Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter Mary is a lesbian. That shocked politicians of both parties, focus group participants and just plain voters. What happened next could affect the outcome of the closely contested election for president.
The negative reaction by prominent Democrats was conveyed to the Kerry campaign plane with this recommendation: apologize for any inadvertent insult. That received some support within Sen. Kerry's staff, but not much. The overwhelming sentiment was for no apology. Indeed, the hard language from principal Kerry surrogates described Mary Cheney as "fair game" and asserted that her mother is ashamed of her.
It is hard to believe that in the closing weeks of a campaign where great issues are debated, the sexuality of the vice president's daughter could be determinant. Still, overnight polling after the Cheney flap showed a sharp gain by George W. Bush. Whether this is coincidental or cause-and-effect is a subject for backstage political discussion in both parties.
Kerry campaign sources say there was no plan for Kerry to talk about Ms. Cheney last Wednesday, and it never came up in the debate prep. The senator's intimates say he was trying to compliment the Cheneys, but there is absolutely nothing complimentary in what he said. Many Republicans see a calculated plot to depress Bush's social conservative base by revealing the vice president's daughter as a lesbian. But her sexual orientation is such common knowledge on the right that the alleged Democratic plot would be foolish to undertake.
Rather, Kerry's comments appear to be spontaneous -- and unpleasant. Faced with President Bush's answer in the debate that he did not know whether he believed "homosexuality is a choice," Kerry blurted out they should go ask Mary Cheney, who "would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as." This sounded like an effort to impute hypocrisy on the part of an opponent seeking to ban gay marriage.
Whatever Kerry's intent, there can be no doubt about the reaction. Democrats at debate-watching parties gasped in surprise. Wired focus group members across the country displayed an instant negative reaction. Old Democratic political hands, in disbelief, tried to convey their unhappiness to Kerry. Even Kerry's Republican friend, Sen. John McCain, publicly criticized the Democratic nominee.
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.