The Note

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By 2005, three of the last four American presidential elections will have featured a Republican nominee named "Bush" attempting to paint the Democratic nominee as a waffler who is weak on defense and an inveterate tax raiser.

Up until now, that strategy stands at one win and won loss.

While there are many factors that determine whether this strategy works or not, two things are certain:

1. All three targets — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry — have given the Bushes ample material with which to work on all three fronts — both historical and during the campaigns themselves.

2. Bill Clinton was able to overcome the label-pasting for a variety for reasons, not the least his prodigious, once-in-a-generation political skills.

Republicans don't mind admitting on the record these days that they are using their paid and earned media to try to define Kerry as a flip flopper who will raise taxes as president (and today is, of course, tax day), but they seem to have made the decision to work the national security angle a bit more subtly (as in the elliptical messages of the early BC04 ads).

We agree with Karl Rove that there is nothing wrong with — or improperly political about — going to the country and making the case that the GOP is stronger on security issues, but the campaign seems to think that all the tsoris it gets from the press over attempts to put before the voters what is arguably the most important issue of the presidential race just isn't worth it.

We wouldn't be surprised if BC04 decides today to remind people of John Kerry's record of voting "against things before he votes for them," or was it "for them before he votes against them," and maybe the midday Ken Mehlman/Matt Dowd news conference call will make all this clearer to you.

Don't act like Bill Clinton didn't give plenty of ammunition for the Bush/41 attacks on him on all three fronts. Those presidential visits to Waffle Houses across the fruited plain came with a lot of talking points.

Our favorite: when Clinton rapid responder Betsey Wright's challenged the Bush-Quayle claim that Clinton had raised taxes 128 times in Arkansas by saying it was only 127 (and, no, we aren't kidding).

But Bill Clinton was able to put the economy in play as THE issue of the race, and he was also able to outflank President Bush on some national security issues (Bosnia, China, etc.).

(And Kerry has a chance on that today, with the AP reporting: "The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits, after having fallen to the lowest level in four years, shot up last week by the biggest amount since late 2002. The new report dealt a setback to hopes that the economy is finally beginning to produce a sustained recovery in jobs.")

Clinton, please recall, also used Iran-Contra, "read my lips," and other elements of the Bush record to raise doubts about President Bush's credibility and, even, character, thereby neutralizing those same attacks on him.

Suffice to say, Al Gore, flat on his back from all the flip-flopper/tax-raiser/soft-on-defense defining that was done to him, was never able to score those jujitsu points on the man we now call 43 (Yes, yes, Terry and James and Paul — we know all about the popular vote.).

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