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updated 9/9/2004 3:24:50 PM ET 2004-09-09T19:24:50

Democrat John Kerry has fallen behind President Bush this week because his campaign has had to spend time, money and energy voicing its outrage about the Swift Boat Veterans.

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During what was supposed to be a lull in pro-Kerry advertising, he and the Democratic National Committee have been forced to go on the air with TV ad defenses of his service.

Vietnam was Kerry’s biographical bastion and at this point in a campaign one’s bastion ought not to be under siege.

And in an odd tactical choice, despite the serious and, from Kerry’s point of view, scurrilous, nature of the Swift Boat Veterans’ charges against him, the only TV or radio venue this week in which Kerry agreed to submit to questioning was a goofball one: Comedy Central's Daily Show.

After more than a year of Kerry talking about his combat service in Vietnam, one wouldn’t think that there would be a pent-up demand for more information about Kerry’s service.

But book buyers are proving that wrong.

"Unfit for Command," the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth book attacking Kerry’s Vietnam tour of duty and his anti-war rhetoric once he returned home, has been atop Amazon.com’s bestseller list for weeks.

As of Tuesday, the Barnes & Noble chain said its stock of "Unfit for Command" was gone; the Borders chain said it couldn’t get an adequate supply.

"Unfit for Command," and the TV ads, blogs, radio talk show segments, and water-cooler chatter that swirl around it, are as big a phenomenon as Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11."

If 10 percent, or even five percent, of these book buyers are undecided voters living in toss-up states, that would be a significant number.

And yet in good news for Kerry, the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed no erosion of support for Kerry in the head-to-head “if the election for president were held today” question.

So one way the Kerry camp might portray that is: "Despite unrelenting smear attacks from Republicans, John Kerry emerges unscathed.”

“The personal is political,” a stock phrase from 1970s feminism, is the last principle we’d ever expect Vice President Dick Cheney to illustrate — yet this week he did.

Cheney’s super-square image — stodgy, stolid and ideologically fixed — made his comments about gay and lesbian rights all the more telling.

'An issue our family is very familiar with'
“Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue our family is very familiar with," Cheney told an audience at a campaign event in Davenport, Iowa, on Tuesday. "With respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. ... People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

He added that each state has traditionally decided what constitutes a marriage and said the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize marriages performed in other states, “has not been successfully challenged in the courts and may be sufficient to resolve the issue.”

Bush has argued that the Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas decision puts DOMA in jeopardy: In the next few years, Bush said, judges might force states to recognize out-of-state marriages between gay people, no matter what the majority of people in that state want.

So were Cheney’s comments impertinence to the president? Ideological deviance?

Another way to look at them: a way of widening the GOP “big tent,” part of the strategy of giving gay rights supporters California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani prominent places at next week’s Republican convention.

Unless the Bush-Cheney campaign has lost its characteristically tight “message control,” Cheney’s statement was deliberate in both timing and setting.

If you're in the audience at a Cheney rally, you’re probably not there by chance and you do not ask a random question.

Cheney was signaling how serious a play he and Bush are making for Iowa and neighboring Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have a tradition of non-judgmentalism on social issues.

Cheney’s remarks also suggest the Republican high command increasingly sees the importance of the Libertarian-minded voter this year. If Ralph Nader poses a marginal threat on Kerry’s left, so too does Libertarian Michael Badnarik on Bush’s right.

Keep the 2000 election in mind: A few thousand or even a few hundred votes in New Mexico, for example, could make a difference — and they could be Libertarian votes.

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