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JOAN VENNOCHI

A battle of L-words: 'liar' vs. 'liberal'

THE RELUCTANT liberal versus the repeat deceiver.

John Kerry, the unofficial Democratic presidential nominee, is doing his best to make President George W. Bush's credibility the issue in their upcoming matchup. Bush is helping on two fronts.

Without weapons of mass destruction, the rationale for war with Iraq is tough to articulate, as Bush's "Meet the Press" appearance made clear. The next level of inquiry will be even tougher. It goes straight to the heart of presidential honesty: Did Bush and his circle of advisers deceive the country to make the case for war?

The crux of the controversy over Bush's National Guard service is also about honesty. Is Bush telling the truth about his attendance at National Guard meetings from mid-1972 to mid-1973? Forget about the pay stubs. Did he attend meetings when he was supposed to attend them?

Calling a sitting president a liar is harsh, but so is the label the Republicans acknowledge they will use to try to destroy Kerry: Massachusetts liberal. Indeed, lying may be more acceptable than liberalism in certain parts of the country.

Kerry is trying to run away from the liberal tag as fast as his Lincolnesque legs will carry him. In the end, his record will speak for itself -- Americans for Democratic Action give him a lifetime liberal rating that is higher than Ted Kennedy's.

For a long time Kerry has been calculating when it pays to look like he is walking away from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its legacy of Tip O'Neill liberalism. He voted for welfare reform. He spoke out against affirmative action and teacher tenure (but retreated quickly in the face of liberal fire). He let the state's senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy, take the lead in criticizing Bush for launching war with Iraq.

Kerry voted for the resolution allowing Bush to go to war against Iraq as well as for the Patriot Act he now decries. It is all part of a grand political plan to look like a "centrist" -- a politician who stands for everything and offends no one whose vote matters in a key electoral state.

Kerry's refusal to take a stand on the historic vote to ban gay marriage in Massachusetts represents the same calculation. Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 because he said it represented "gay-bashing." Today, as he is about to become his party's nominee, taking a stand against a state constitutional amendment to limit marriage to a man and a woman is not politically helpful. So he won't.

Kerry's history of issue-straddling and have-it-all-ways politics is well documented here in Massachusetts. Soon enough it will be part of the national debate over who deserves to be president of the United States.

Being all things to all people is one way to get elected. In fact, in America 2004, it is tempting to believe it is the only way to win the White House. Voters say they want principle, but mostly seem to want politicians who think the way they do. Modern polling and focus group research grant any candidate who can pay for it the ability to determine majority consensus and embrace it. A voting record that defies the rhetoric complicates matters. But as long as a candidate says what the majority want to hear, it is theoretically possible to make them forget reality.

That must be what Kerry and his campaign brain trust are thinking as he travels to primary states talking about "mainstream" values and pretending there is no voting record the other side can label as the opposite. The liberal voting record is there for everyone to see and interpret -- on abortion, gay rights, taxes and national defense. Ultimately, Kerry will return to it, literally and figuratively, when he accepts his party's nomination in Boston, the liberal heart of Massachusetts. Does he really believe he can crop Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis out of the victory celebration?

As Kerry tries to run away from Massachusetts and his liberal credentials, it is fair to question, what is he running toward? A president has to stand for something, doesn't he?

Like it or not, Bush does.

And like it or not, liars can win reelection. Bill Clinton did.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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