David E. Sanger’s writeup of President Bush’s visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa caught our eye today for doing something campaign scribes too often fail to do: Seeing past the candidate’s image and the campaign talking points.

Sanger sets up Bush’s words by noting that, “like his rival, [Bush] is a millionaire many times over.” Armed with that knowledge, the reader is better equipped to evaluate Bush’s rhetorical ploy (and shot at rival Sen. Kerry) when he asked the Cedar Rapids audience, “You see, if you can’t raise enough by taxing the rich, guess who gets to pay next?” Answering his own question, Bush continued, “Yes, the not-rich. That’s all of us.”

Both candidates, of course, are wealthy by the standards of average Americans. At the same time, both are also working to portray themselves as just one more “ordinary guy,” as Sanger puts it. For Bush, in particular, this ordinary guy persona is at the heart of his strategy to connect with and win over voters. And since March, his campaign has been hammering away with talking points casting Kerry as out of the mainstream because of his wealth, hoping to influence press coverage of the Democratic senator.

To some extent this tactic is working. A search of the political coverage over the past few months reveals a press prone to needlessly introduce Senators Kerry and Edwards and Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, as millionaires or billionaires, without similar labels for President Bush or Vice President Cheney. For example, a July 19 Associated Press article exploring the values debate in the campaign asserts, “Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Edwards are both multi-millionaires, but both have portrayed themselves as more able to help the average American than the present Republican administration.” However, nowhere do we learn that Bush and Cheney are hardly paupers themselves.

What’s most revealing about the coverage are the instances in which Bush or Cheney are described as millionaires. With few exceptions, readers are treated to this characterization only in direct comparison to Kerry and Edwards. For instance, a July 15 Associated Press story documenting Edwards’ answer to that ageless question for candidates, “How much does a gallon of milk cost?” notes that “All four candidates — President Bush, Kerry, Edwards and Cheney — are millionaires.” Yet, you’d be hard pressed to find a story that discloses Bush’s or Cheney’s bankrolls without noting the Democrats’.

It’s not hard to understand why this is: The Kerry campaign simply hasn’t been as aggressive about pushing the “Bush and Cheney are rich” argument as the Bush campaign has been about portraying the Democrats that way. And, as we at Campaign Desk have already seen, the more relentlessly one of the candidates can repeat their chosen talking point, the more likely the press is to sneak it into their coverage.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.