Douglas Tones Down Rhetoric Against Clavelle

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(Host) Republican Governor Jim Douglas has backed away from attacks his party made against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Clavelle. Republican Party officials had charged that Clavelle’s support for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas 15 years ago was evidence that the Democrat is extremist.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) On Thursday, Governor Douglas visited a senior citizen housing project in Burlington and touted his work over the last year and a half.

(Douglas) “I feel very good about the 19 months I’ve had to serve the state and I’ll chat a little bit about what I think we’ve accomplished over that time and what I hope to do over the next few years.”

(Dillon) It was a different, far more positive message than one his campaign had delivered just a few days earlier.

Republican Party officials had dredged up newspaper stories from 1989 that showed Burlington Mayor Clavelle had marched in support of Nicaraguan Sandinistas, a group that had overthrown a brutal military dictatorship. Republicans hoped the 15-year old event would show that the Democrat is out of touch with mainstream Vermont.

But Democrats and the Clavelle campaign reacted with outrage. They said Douglas was engaged in a McCarthy-like smear campaign, and called on the governor to disavow the strategy. Douglas now clearly wants to tone down the rhetoric.

(Douglas) “I’ve had a frank discussion with our party chairman. I think he understands how I feel.”

(Dillon) Douglas’s campaign chairman argued that Clavelle’s support of the Sandinistas was relevant because Clavelle has tried to link Douglas with President Bush. Douglas, who serves as chairman of the president’s re-election committee here, says he wants to focus on issues closer to home.

(Douglas) “It may be fair, but it’s irrelevant. I think that the people want the candidates to talk about our goals for the state, our hopes and aspirations for Vermont, not about who are friends are today or who may have been in the past.”

(Dillon) Douglas has also blamed the statements on overzealous supporters. But Clavelle spokesman B.J. Rogers says that’s disingenuous, because the Sandinista attack was endorsed by Douglas’s campaign chairman.

(Rogers) “In the end, I think they’ll look back on this as a moment of very poor judgment, probably. I think that we would have hoped for more substantial action to be taken on the part of Governor Douglas and his campaign to sort of right this wrong.”

(Dillon) University of Vermont political scientists Garrison Nelson says the tactic could backfire on Douglas.

(Nelson) “Vermonters don’t take very well to this. We have to remember that Ralph Flanders was one of the leading Republicans against the excesses of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. So making these kinds of McCarthy-ite assertions just don’t work.”

(Dillon) Nelson points out that in 1990, then-Congressman Peter Smith used television ads to try to link challenger Bernie Sanders to Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The TV ads hurt Smith, who lost his race for re-election. But Nelson says that it’s still relatively early in the campaign.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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