WASHINGTON – A thoughtful reference to an opponent’s child or a callous comment to score political points?

Those were the competing reactions Thursday to Sen. John Kerry’s decision to mention Vice President Dick Cheney’s openly gay daughter during the final presidential debate.

“We’re all God’s children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as,” Kerry told debate moderator Bob Schieffer Wednesday night when asked if he believes homosexuality is a choice.

The reference to Mary Cheney, 35, who works on the vice president’s campaign but keeps a low profile, provoked an angry response from her parents.

In a post-debate television interview, Vice President Cheney called it “inappropriate” for Kerry to mention his daughter.

He described himself Thursday as a “pretty angry father” during a Florida campaign rally.

His wife, Lynne Cheney, had stronger words at a rally Wednesday night in Pennsylvania.

“I am speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom,” she said. Referring to Kerry and his comments about her daughter, she said: “This is not a good man. What a cheap and tawdry political trick.”

Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, and author of “The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette,” said he was “absolutely startled” by Kerry’s mention of Mary Cheney.

Hess said Kerry crossed the line of political decorum – even though Mary Cheney is openly gay and her parents have talked publicly about her in the past.

“To make it about an opponent’s daughter struck me as such poor taste,” Hess said.

In a written statement Thursday, Kerry said he was trying to pay the Cheneys a compliment.

“I love my daughters. They love their daughter,” Kerry said. “I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with the issue.”

Nicolle Devenish, a Bush campaign spokeswoman, responded: “This was a gratuitous attack. He tried to apologize without apologizing. And it’s an acknowledgement that their three-pronged attack on Mary Cheney has backfired on them.”

Democrats came to Kerry’s defense Thursday.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said in an ABC radio interview that Lynne Cheney had “over-reacted.”

“I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter’s sexual preferences,” Elizabeth Edwards said. “It makes me really sad that that’s Lynne’s response.”

Kerry didn’t mention how the Cheneys treat their daughter – unlike John Edwards, who also brought up Mary Cheney at the vice presidential debate on Oct. 6.

“I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much,” Edwards said after Cheney answered a question about same-sex marriage without specifically mentioning his daughter. “And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing.”

During a very heated 90-minute debate, Cheney took time out to thank Edwards “for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.”

A senior Kerry adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity because the campaign didn’t want to fan publicity on this topic, said that when Schieffer asked about homosexuality, Kerry immediately recalled Edwards’ exchange with Cheney.

“It was not a prepared riff,” the adviser said.

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Tad Devine, a senior Kerry campaign strategist, said on CNN that he understands why Republicans are professing outrage at Kerry’s comment – “they don’t want to talk about four years of failure, which is the Bush administration’s” record.

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The Cheneys have talked openly since the 2000 campaign about having a lesbian daughter. Earlier this year, they angered some conservatives by saying they thought the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states rather than the subject of a constitutional amendment.

President Bush has called for a constitutional amendment banning the practice. Cheney said in his debate with Edwards that he would prefer to leave the issue to the states, but Bush “sets policy for this administration, and I support the president.”



(James Kuhnhenn and William Douglas contributed to this story.)



(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-10-14-04 1751EDT



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