LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- When President Bush accused his Democratic challenger of having a history of "flip-flops" last week, it marked the first time he had ever used the label outright on the campaign trail.
"No matter how many times Senator Kerry flip-flops, we were right to make America safer by removing Saddam Hussein from power," Bush said without fanfare in a campaign stop here, his aides barely bothering to note that a new phrase had been added to the usual campaign address.
In fact, preparations for that moment had been underway for many months, part of a carefully designed Republican effort coming out of the Democratic primaries to pounce on contradictions in Senator John F. Kerry's message. And the strategy dates back nearly a decade -- to the 1996 Senate race against former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, when strategists now advising Bush first began studying Kerry's weaknesses and honed in on fickleness as a potentially devastating line of attack.
"This goes back to him being for Vietnam and against Vietnam," said Stuart Stevens, a Bush media strategist who first encountered Kerry as an adviser to Weld in 1996. "It's just a pattern in this guy's life."
It is an argument that has infuriated and frustrated Democrats now for months -- even more so because Bush himself hasn't suffered for changing his position on important issues such as the rationale for invading Iraq and the ability of the United States to win the struggle against terrorism.
At the same time, Kerry advisers contend that their candidate's ability to evolve is a sign of his intellectual rigor -- especially compared with what they say is the president's stubbornness even in the face of evidence he is wrong.
"Bush certainly has the biggest flip-flop of the lifetime -- he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and there are none," Kerry adviser Michael Meehan said. As for the attacks on Kerry's consistency, Meehan said that is the peril of running for office on a Senate record. "His opponents try to take one sliver of a vote and match it up against another and say you have an inconsistent pattern. The parliamentary tactics that have played out in the press in this campaign have been very misleading."
Advisers on both sides, however, agree on one point: the flip-flop charge against Kerry has taken root and is having a significant impact on the dynamic of the campaign, inspiring Republican supporters as almost no other issue has over the last six months. At virtually every rally, Bush supporters interrupt the stump speech whenever Kerry is mentioned to chant in a mocking sing-song tone: "Flip-flop! Flip-flop!" Senior Bush advisers revel in the refrain, and have used it as the basis for at least three advertisements since the end of the primaries.
And according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, Bush is seen as decisive by 75 percent of those surveyed, compared with 37 percent who see Kerry that way.
Yet unlike some unpredictable elements of the campaign -- such as the eruptions of controversy over each candidate's activities during the Vietnam War -- the "flip-flop" charge has been in the making since long before Kerry was an announced candidate. Rob Gray, a Weld adviser who is now advising the Bush team, recalled the day during the 2000 campaign when his colleagues from Washington arrived in Boston to comb through old Kerry records, which they then piled onto a Ryder truck and hauled back to the Republican National Committee headquarters. Kerry at that time was on the short list of candidates to join Al Gore on the Democratic ticket. "That was the first delivery of the Kerry research, which obviously had a lot of flip-flop stuff in it," Gray said.
Gray, a longtime Kerry observer, said he early on identified inconsistencies -- such as Kerry saying he would not accept money from political action committees but then forming his own PAC to disburse money to other Democrats. Perhaps most famously, Kerry lambasted Weld during their '96 debates over his stance on the death penalty; Weld supported it for terrorists, but Kerry said that would hinder extradition from nations that do not approve of it. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, though, Kerry has said he would support capital punishment for terrorists.
But if Kerry changed his views on isolated subjects before the 2004 race, his critics say he has made his most obvious reversals in the days since. One example they give is the No Child Left Behind Act, which he voted for but has since criticized, saying the Bush administration has failed to adequately fund it. But most of all, critics focus on his stance on the war in Iraq, which he voted to authorize but has since deplored, saying he would have handled it differently even though he might have reached the same conclusion as Bush that war was necessary.
By far the most criticized of Kerry's statements about the war in Iraq is that he voted in favor of an $87 billion military spending bill before he voted against it -- a remark that was, in fact, true, and a testament to the quirky rules of votes in Congress. But Republicans have turned the statement into a symbol of his inability to take a solid stand on Iraq. According to several Bush campaign officials, it was that comment, made in March, that cemented their portrayal of Kerry as a politician testing the winds of public opinion before taking a stand.
Indeed, before Kerry made the remark, Bush campaign officials were unsure whether they would have better luck painting him as a "Massachusetts liberal" or as a "flip-flopper" -- their top two choices coming out of the Democratic primary, they said, based on their scrutiny of his record in the Senate and during the primary campaign against former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
The Bush campaign's first Internet ad attacked Kerry for accepting money from special interest groups even as he attacked Bush for doing the same -- an ad that Bush communications director Nicolle Devenish now concedes was not as effectively on point as some that followed. "We weren't entirely successful, because it was about his hypocrisy" rather than his inconsistency, Devenish said. "But we certainly got the swing of making the flip-flopping argument after that."
She continued: "When he [Kerry] emerged as the nominee, people knew two things about him, that he beat Howard Dean and he had served in Vietnam. If there are two things people know now, it's probably that he served in Vietnam, and the second is that he's a flip-flopper. It's something he's reinforced more than we have."
As for the president, what's most galling to Kerry supporters is the number of times he has changed his position on serious matters. Since taking office, Bush has backed away from several campaign pledges and reversed course on newer positions.
Initially, for example, he opposed Democratic proposals to create a US Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks, only to embrace the idea once it appeared likely to pass in Congress. More recently, Bush said he did not believe the war against terrorism could be won definitively -- a remark he quickly backed away from and has not repeated in the two weeks since.
Democrats concede that Bush has not suffered as a result. "For five years or more, the Bush image-makers have strategically and concertedly and very effectively constructed an image of the man as, first and foremost, a man of resoluteness and determination and principal," said Jim Jordan, who managed Kerry's campaign last year and now is a consultant to several anti-Bush groups. "It's a false image, of course, but it's effectively insulated him from his frequently politically convenient flip-flops and hypocrisies."
Yet the very fact that Democrats have tried to portray Bush as both foolishly consistent and a waffler seems to have prevented either argument from taking hold. Even Devenish, the Bush communications director, acknowledged that Kerry might have had better luck pigeonholing the president into a single stereotype.
"The Kerry campaign can't call him both stubborn and a flip-flopper," Devenish said. "That's why their attacks have had no effect. They've had no discipline in their attacks on the president. They've flip-flopped on whether Bush is a flip-flopper or not."