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Can Lawyer-Bashing Win Votes For Bush?

On Nov. 2, Seattle neurosurgeon and lifelong Democratic supporter Steve Klein will do something he has never done before: Vote Republican. He's not driven by terrorism, taxes, or even the cost of health care. "I've never pulled the lever for a Republican candidate in my life," Klein says. "But this time, I'm voting for who will vote for reform."

That would be President George W. Bush. Klein is going against Democrat John Kerry because he's hopping mad about "lawsuit abuse" that has jacked up the cost of medical malpractice premiums and forced some physicians to flee states where rates are particularly onerous.

As the race for the White House shifts into high gear, Republicans and their business allies are aiming to win over some Democrats by demonizing trial lawyers as litigious leeches who hurt average consumers as well as corporations and doctors. They are giddy that Kerry picked as his running mate John Edwards, a well-heeled, well-coiffed millionaire lawyer. "The Democratic Party is the party of trial lawyers," says Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. "People...have less access to [health care] because a few people are getting very rich."

That strategy is sure to win Bush the votes of some doctors who might have considered voting Democratic in retaliation for the GOP's close ties to the insurance companies that have been squeezing them. And it will rally Bush's base, especially small-biz owners and corporate execs who have made legal reform a top priority. Although it is not endorsing either candidate, on Aug. 24 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave $500,000 in seed money to The November Fund, a group dedicated to warning voters about the dangers of putting the trial bar's favorite son in the White House. A group of former Edwards staffers is planning a counterattack funded by plaintiff lawyers.

But the political reality is that Bush's anti-lawyer rhetoric cuts both ways. As despised as the stereotypical ambulance-chaser is, many blue-collar voters worry about the excesses of unchecked corporate power and see the courts as the only recourse for defending their rights.

Edwards -- who won fame and fortune by representing average folks against insurance companies, hospitals, and corporations -- may not be Exhibit A in the case against greedy lawyers. "Nobody could be a better advertisement for the plaintiff's bar in America than John Edwards," says shareholder lawyer Melvyn I. Weiss, who raises funds for Democrats. Business sees the situation differently. "If the trial lawyers' association were to have a poster child, I don't know who would fit better [than Edwards]," says Jack Faris, CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business.

However, polls suggest the issue isn't resonating. A CNN/USA Today)/Gallup Poll just after Edwards' selection found that 69% of voters said his profession would not affect their choice. Says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan: "There's just not much sentiment for tort reform outside hard-core Republicans."

Yet even they don't necessarily vote that issue. In Florida, former Housing & Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez trounced six rivals in an Aug. 31 GOP primary despite attacks on his background as a personal-injury lawyer who won million-dollar verdicts. The victory for Martinez, who ironically was handpicked by the White House, suggests that the polls may be right and tagging Kerry/Edwards as the trial lawyer team won't do major damage. zz

Relations between the Bush and al-Saud clans have long been cozy -- and complaints by some Washington conservatives about the involvement of Saudi citizens and money in September 11 haven't fundamentally changed that. There's no ambiguity among leading princes in Riyadh when it comes to the U.S. Presidential elections: "It's Bush all the way," says a senior member of the House of Saud. According to this prince, the 1.3 million barrel-a-day increase in Saudi oil production, announced on Aug. 11, was designed in part to give a boost to George W. Bush -- although Riyadh would have eventually moved to damp down soaring prices. What's more, senior members of the Saudi royal family, including effective ruler 80-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah, were offended by Democratic nominee John Kerry's perceived anti-Saudi statements at the Democratic Convention. "He almost singled us out by name," grouses the prince.

Who's the best candidate for the markets? Investors surveyed by the Gallup Organization favor President Bush -- but not by much. The Republican incumbent's 41%-35% lead over Kerry has a four-point margin of error. (The rest -- 21% -- said it doesn't matter who wins.) But Bush is clearly capturing the optimists' votes: Those who say four more years would be best for markets register a strong 184 score on the UBS/Gallup Index of Investor Optimism, while those who say Senator Kerry will boost investments score a negative 17 for optimism.

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