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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Campaigns Link Rivals With Enemies

CHICAGO -- "You can judge a president by the enemies he's willing to make," Vice President Al Gore declared in his speech to the Democratic convention Wednesday night.

And, he might have added, you can just as easily judge a presidential contender by the enemies he targets.

At their just-concluded national conventions, both parties worked to define their nominees by setting them in counterpoint to a list of political enemies.

At a time when voters appear to be recoiling from direct attacks by politicians on their opponents, each party sought to play a kind of bank shot -- weakening its rivals by associating them with groups the public may view with suspicion, and questioning their willingness to rise above special interests to represent the national interest.

Republicans linked President Bill Clinton to teachers' unions (and, more broadly, union bosses), trial lawyers and, in a general way, the forces of social liberation that have transformed American culture in the past three decades.

Democrats last week wrapped Republican nominee Bob Dole in the arms of the National Rifle Association, the tobacco industry, polluters and the Republican Congress led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

In both cases, the targets that the parties spared were just as revealing. Worried about the gender gap, Republicans focused much less fire on feminists and abortion-rights advocates than conservatives often do.

Even more strikingly, the Democrats last week uttered hardly a peep of criticism of either big business or religious conservatives -- two targets that don't fit into Clinton's centrist, nonpopulist re-election strategy.

Compared to 1994, when anger at Clinton's efforts to expand government inspired an outpouring of grass-roots energy on the right, some consultants in both parties think Democrats may have a more resonant set of opponents to play off against this fall.

When voters were asked in a recent survey by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg which groups' influence on the parties they most feared, tobacco companies topped the list, with the NRA finishing in the middle of the pack; lower still were Democratic allies such as unions and gay-rights advocates. Also generating little concern were religious conservatives -- who don't seem to be in Clinton's sights anyway.

"If voters view the parties by their opponents," says one Republican operative, "it's pretty clear who has the better enemies this cycle."

At least during the prime-time hours when they had the largest audiences, neither convention was particularly vitriolic in attacking anyone. Both parties were mindful of focus-group research showing that voters -- especially independents -- dislike partisan attacks and yearn for leaders who can reach across party lines.

But within those constraints, each side managed to land a pattern of blows that traced a revealing outline of their election strategies.

In choosing their targets, the Republicans hoped to challenge Clinton's portrayal of himself as a moderate.

By linking Clinton to teachers' unions, Dole and other Republicans aim to raise doubts about the president's willingness to reform education, particularly by providing parents with the vouchers for private schools that teachers' unions loathe. And by tying him to trial lawyers, they mean to question Clinton's commitment to reforming the civil-justice system.

The Democrats targeted a contrasting set of enemies at their convention.

Although Gingrich fits into a separate category the principal Democratic targets were the NRA and tobacco industry, groups that raise concerns among the suburban, married voters that Clinton's campaign is most focused on.