Full Coverages>World>US Election

Bush, Kerry use 'values' to woo voters
Updated: 2004-07-14 14:00

U.S. President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry are trying to define and dominate the debate on gay marriage, abortion, gun rights and other values in a more virtuous-than-thou scramble for voters like blue-collar Democrat Carolyn Brooks.

The 61-year-old clerk opposes abortion, even to save a woman's life, and gay marriage, even if it requires amending the Constitution. But there's a value she places above all others: Honesty.

U.S. President George W. Bush shakes hands with local police officers before departing Duluth, Minnesota, July 13, 2004. Bush was stumping all-day in the Midwest battleground states of Michigan and Minnesota and will spend Wednesday campaigning by bus in Wisconsin before returning to the White House. [Reuters]
"And Bush, with his war on Iraq, has failed on that note," Brooks said.

Along with the economy and the war on terrorism, values has emerged as a critical issue in the close presidential campaign, with some polls showing Americans evenly split on which candidate shares their personal values.

The values debate energizes Bush's strongest supporters, particularly in GOP-leaning rural America. Recognizing that political reality, Senate Republicans are pushing for a vote Wednesday on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage even though they lack the votes.

Bush also hopes to make inroads among Democrats in blue-collar communities such as Michigan's Saginaw, Flint and Bay City as well as the Cleveland suburb of Parma, Ohio places populated by low- and middle-income social conservatives, many Catholic, who might otherwise vote their pocketbook. The Republican incumbent has accused Kerry of harboring values outside the mainstream.

Democrats fear that state initiatives to ban gay marriage in Michigan and Ohio could create a wedge between Kerry and the leaders of black community, who are more socially conservative than most people realize.

Kerry is staking his claim to traditional GOP issues such as patriotism and faith while trying to expand the values agenda to include health care, education, optimism, feel-your-pain sensibilities and honesty.

Even Republican strategists, mindful of voters like Brooks, say Bush's integrity will become an issue Nov. 2 if the war in Iraq goes sour and voters feel misled by the White House.

"I think Democrats have muddied up the values waters pretty effectively," said Joe Gaylord, a GOP operative in Washington.

Americans are opposed to gay marriage by a 2-to-1 margin, polls show, but are evenly split on allowing civil unions of gay couples that provide the same legal benefits enjoyed by married heterosexual couples. People are evenly divided on whether they favor abortion rights. A slim majority say they believe it's more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of Americans to own guns.

But polls don't begin to explain why values are so hard to define and handicap in a presidential race. Interviews with more than three dozen socially conservative Democrats in Michigan and Ohio offer a few clues.

_ People who support the war in Iraq or think the economy is on the rebound are more likely to be swayed by Bush's values argument.

Phil Samuel, 47, of Freeland, Mich., works at a stamping plant where he's punching 50 hours a week and welcomed a one-week layoff that gave him some time with his family and unemployment benefits.

"I'm for family values, good moral values," he said. He voted twice for Democrat Bill Clinton, then switched to Bush in 2000 and will likely vote to re-elect the Republican. Samuel backs Bush on gun rights, abortion and gay marriage.

_ Voters see empathy as a value. "He can't share my values if he doesn't feel my pain," said Darrell Tomczak, 57, a General Motors employee from Flint.

_ The war in Iraq has become a de facto values issue, with many voters questioning Bush's integrity.

Missy Kocab, 18, a product of Ohio's Catholic schools, opposes gay marriage and abortion, but is leaning toward Kerry. "Honesty is an important value, especially in a politician," she said while sorting doughnuts at the Parmatown Mall. "And I just don't think the president has been honest about Iraq."

Sipping a beer at an American Legion post in Saginaw, Van Digby says any politician who supports gay marriage "will lose a lot of votes, including mine." The General Motors retiree opposes abortion and backs the right to bear arms.

He may vote against Bush.

"I want to get the truth. Did I get it from him? That's hard to tell," he said.

Bill Tompson, 40, a customer at a bait-and-tackle shop in Hampton Township, says he voted for Bush in 2000 because he feared Democrat Al Gore would undermine gun rights. He's voting for Kerry in the fall.

"I don't like what's happened with the economy and Iraq," Tompson said.

While overwhelmingly Democratic, some black voters could be influenced by social issues. "I've got a problem with anybody who backs gays," said Purnell Williams, 60, as he stood outside an unemployment office in Saginaw.

A few influential black ministers in Detroit and Cleveland have spoken out against homosexuality and some may form coalitions with the GOP.

"I don't believe gay marriage will decrease the Democrats' share of the black vote," which went 9-to-1 against Bush in 2000, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. "But it could suppress it."

As for Brooks, she is the quintessential swing voter of 2004 the latest incarnation of "Reagan Democrats" who helped the conservative Republican to two presidential terms. She favors gun control ("Only because I had one pointed at me, by my ex-husband"), but is otherwise a political soul mate of Bush on social issues.

"If Kerry is against me again and again, then he kind of defeats my purposes," she said.

But she's no fan of the president, whom she suspects of misleading Americans about Iraq.

"I'm trying to learn which of these guys has values like mine," she said. "My personal values are honesty, integrity, optimism."

  Story Tools