Akron, OH - In the battle for the hearts and minds of American voters, few things carry as much weight as the pithy catch phrase. The election of 2004 is no exception. Democratic contender John Kerry was first out of the gate with his "hope/help is on the way" theme. President Bush lost no time in introducing the phrase, "We've turned a corner."
Now, for the next 90 days, American's will have the pleasure of watching the two men exchange vacuous one-liners as they try to distill the complexity of governance into short, five-to-ten word sound bytes.
"For language lovers, this is a marvelous time," said William Safire, political columnist for the New York Times. "The finely honed phrases are just starting to fly. By the first frost, we will have been inundated with memorable bon mots - a few of which might just stand the test of time and become ingrained in the American lexicon."
Few phrases reach this point, particularly in the realm of politics. In 2000, then candidate Bush introduced, "A little more dumb but way more fun" while campaigning against Vice President Al Gore. Although voters in focus groups agreed with the sentiment, few thought it a strong theme for Mr. Bush.
Similarly, in 1996, President Clinton used the catch phrase, "Lets just see what comes out," only once before it was spiked by advisors. "It could be read in too many ways," said James Carville, one of Mr. Clinton's most senior political advisors, "and if it had stuck, well, there would have been hell to pay for that one with the whole Monica thing and all."
For the ordinary American though, these phrases can carry more confusion than political meaning. Joe Dowd, a self-proclaimed independent voter for Canton, Ohio, is scratching his head over this year's crop. "I don't know," he said, "hope is kind of a hard thing to bring to someone, but I guess it makes sense. On the other hand, I don't know just which corner we went around. Maybe Bush and Kerry should work together and say something like ‘Hope is just around the corner,' I'd get that one for sure.
"I thought Bob Hope was dead though," continued Dowd, "I sure miss that guy - and I'm sure he'd be a big hit with our boys in Iraq. It does go to show that Kerry supports the troops I guess."
When told of this grass-roots confusion, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior political advisor, was dismissive. "That makes about as much sense as a pasta noose. We're coming up with stuff that is just going to kill the Democrats and this is what Joe Six-pack thinks? Thanks very much Mr. and Mrs. America, you've been a great help. NOT!"
The Kerry campaign was only slightly less insulting. "So let me get this straight," said Mary Beth Cahill, Mr. Kerry's campaign manager, "people don't get the idea of hope or help being on the way, but they would get it being ‘just around the corner?' I don't know if these people could find hope if it were stuck between their teeth and they were in a hall of mirrors. God help us all."
For word watches, round one may be a draw, but neither candidate is backing down. It promises to be a long and bruising bout. May the best wordsmith win.