Politics & Government

In campaigns, name-calling may have lost its muscle

When U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry dismissed his Democratic opponent last month as “Nancy Pelosi's chosen recruit” who had “pockets stuffed with cash from Washington liberals,” one of the loudest groans came from a fellow Republican.

“This shouting Liberal! Liberal! Liberal! stuff is not going to work this year,” Lee Teague, Mecklenburg's GOP chairman, e-mailed a reporter.

“McHenry and a lot of other Republicans in Washington need to get a clue,” he added later.

For both parties, labels are a staple of election-year politics. Teague is among Republicans who say old bumper-sticker descriptions won't work in a year when voters are burdened by economic insecurities, and their party by an unpopular president.

“We don't have the brand power to do that right now, so we need to come to the table with a better game,” said Michael Steele, chairman of GOPAC, a national group charged with electing Republicans.

“We need some common-sense solutions that speak to where people are in their everyday lives. So running around screaming ‘this guy's a liberal' won't get you re-elected.”

Republicans even blame rising gas prices on the “Pelosi Premium,” named after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat who has become a symbol of her party's liberalism and opposes GOP efforts to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas.

For their part, Democrats are quick to tie Republicans to President Bush.

They say presumptive presidential nominee John McCain would represent a third Bush term. One blog features photos of the president with Charlotte mayor and GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory.

“Some seem to be giving political labels a premature burial,” said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation. “While 2008 is likely to be a year when voters want to hear issues and specifics and solutions, don't be fooled into thinking that linking candidates to unpopular national politicians or employing political labels doesn't work any more. They work as long as they fit.”

In one special congressional election this year, they didn't.

Republicans in a northern Mississippi district sought to cast Democrat Travis Childers as a liberal. They ran TV ads tying him to presidential candidate Barack Obama. But Childers, who is pro-gun and anti-abortion, won in a district that went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004. It was the Democrats' third special election victory of the year in a conservative district.

Dee Stewart, McHenry's senior adviser, said the liberal label fits, and works, in North Carolina.

“There're two approaches to every issue,” he said. “There's a conservative approach and there's a liberal approach. The voters of North Carolina deserve to know whether any candidate for public office is going to align themselves with far-left policies or with the mainstream of the state's populace.” McHenry is opposed by Hickory attorney Daniel Johnson.

As a longtime strategist to former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, Carter Wrenn pasted Democrats with the liberal tag. He said the label could work in the conservative 10th Congressional District, which includes Catawba, Lincoln and Cleveland counties and parts of Gaston and Iredell.

“But it may be largely irrelevant given the issues people are concerned about today,” Wrenn said. “It's almost like an anachronism.”

GOP Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte said Republicans “need to be talking about what they're going to do for people.”

Voters, she said, “don't have a clue who Nancy Pelosi is.”

Teague, the Mecklenburg chairman, calls it a mistake for Republicans to “nationalize” this year's election by linking local candidates to Washington politicians. Bush's approval is under 30 percent in many polls. While the Democratic-led Congress fares even worse, many voters tend to blame the party in the White House.

“You nationalize an election when your party is popular in national polls, not when it's unpopular,” Teague said. “We've got to win the voters back again.”

Like Teague, Steele said Republicans should focus on real policy differences.

“Republicans had better articulate a vision and a message that voters can trust, or they're just wasting their money running for office,” said Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor.

“The American people lost confidence in our ability to steer the ship of state. We have to regain that. And we're not going to do that by name-calling.”