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Jock the Vote

Democrats and Republicans have been playing a hardball version of Who's the Bigger Sports Fan. But there's an excess of spin on their political pitches

A few weeks ago former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took the stump for President George W. Bush in Council Bluffs, Iowa. A world away from his beloved box seat at Yankee Stadium, but hardly out of his element, Giuliani covered the typical Republican talking points--John Kerry is a flip-flopper, a hopeless liberal, a weakling who appears vaguely French--before pulling out the big guns. Da Mayor, who's seen wearing a Yankees cap at least as often as Derek Jeter, labeled the Democratic presidential nominee a phony sports fan.

There are few more damning accusations you can make about a politician, and Giuliani, rest assured, chose his words with care. The Republicans can't say that Kerry--an avid hockey player, windsurfer, kitesurfer and skier--isn't a stellar athlete, but they have made a coordinated effort to depict their opponent as a sports doofus. And Kerry at times has played into their hands. At a rally in Wisconsin this summer he referred to "Lambert Field," the football cathedral in Green Bay the rest of us know as Lambeau Field. In a speech in Boston in July, the Massachusetts senator mentioned "Manny Ortez," his favorite player on his favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. (Alas, the Sox employ a Manny Ramirez and a David Ortiz, but no Manny Ortez.) Kerry also was booed at an August rally in Michigan when he forgot he had crossed the border from Ohio and sang the praises of Buckeyes football.

Republicans, of course, delight in such behavior. Earlier this year two Washington lawyers (who just happen to be Bush campaign contributors) started Football Fans for Truth, a registered 527 fundraising committee determined to prove Kerry is "not fit to be our sports-fan-in-chief." The Fans website catalogs Kerry's sports gaffes--he also once said his favorite Red Sox player ever was Eddie Yost, who never played for Boston--and posts photos of the candidate bouncing a ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park and catching a football like a girlie man. Kerry's well-documented passion for windsurfing (and the riskier, more physically demanding sport of kitesurfing) is also offered as proof that he's effete and out of touch with NASCAR dads and soccer moms. "I think," Giuliani told that gleeful Council Bluffs crowd, "the next debate should be about sports!"

But would that really be to the GOP's advantage? While Bush keeps physically fit and likes to be introduced at campaign events by John Elway, Arnold Palmer and Lynn Swann, his record as a sports guy is not pristine. While running for governor of Texas in 1994 he took a group of journalists dove hunting but instead shot a state-protected bird called a killdeer, an offense that cost him a $130 fine. In July he suffered bruises to his knee and ego when, while showing off his mountain biking skills to an Associated Press reporter, he flipped over the handlebars of his $3,100 Trek Fuel 98 on his Texas ranch. This is, lest we forget, a former prep school cheerleader who once passed out from a pretzel-related injury while watching an NFL playoff game. And Democrats would no doubt like to convince voters that Bush's trading the young Sammy Sosa, when George W. was owner of the Texas Rangers, was an early sign that the President's decision-making can't be trusted.

Why should we care if the world's only superpower is led by a superfan? "[Sports] are a way for candidates to show they're strong, rugged and competitive," says historian David Greenberg, the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image. "Especially in a time of war, toughness is a part of the presidential demeanor." But make even a small mistake and your image could suffer. For every robust Teddy Roosevelt there's a Jimmy Carter, whose presidency, for some, was neatly summed up by photos of him struggling to stay conscious during a 10K road race. Moreover, vast segments of the citizenry won't notice if you misidentify the president of Uzbekistan. But refer to two home run heroes as Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser (as Ted Kennedy did in 1998), or introduce the Yankees' manager to a crowd as "Joe Torrez" (as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg did last spring), and your reputation as a man of the people can take a serious blow.

Never mind that Kerry quickly corrected his Manny Ortez slip and has gotten the name of the Packers field right on several occasions, facts Giuliani conveniently omits when he's on the stump. As a Red Sox fan Kerry should know a single error can overshadow a career full of home runs. Just ask Carlton Buckner.

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