Republicans see red as ketchup war turns saucy

Forget Iraq. Forget the world economy, or terrorism, or America's deteriorating global image. What the 2004 US presidential election is really about is a fight over politically incorrect fast food.

First came the infamous furore over French fries - renamed "freedom fries" by a certain faction of patriotic Republicans. Now battle has been joined over the accompanying item on the menu - tomato ketchup.

Ketchup may be as all-American as cheerleading and apple pie, but Heinz, the country's leading ketchup maker, also happens to have a direct link to John Kerry, President Bush's Democratic Party challenger. And that poses a problem for every fast-food-loving Republican.

Mr Kerry's wife, Teresa, is the widow of John Heinz, and as such controls the family interest in the company - roughly 4 per cent of Heinz stock. Could it be that with every squirt, ketchup consumers contribute to Democratic Party campaign coffers?

Such was the thinking behind a new line called W Ketchup, which hit the stores to great fanfare a month ago. "You don't support Democrats. Why should your ketchup?" went the slogan. An initial production run of 48,000 bottles sold out in no time, and the concept became the talk of the cable television news circuit.

Now the plot - if not the sauce - is thickening fast. A second Republican-friendly product called Bush Country Ketchup has surfaced, and is trying to muscle in on W's act by accusing its competitor of not being enthusiastic enough about re-electing George Bush.

"We can no longer allow W Ketchup to masquerade as a conservative condiment and continue to market itself to our fellow Republicans without answering several troubling questions that have come to light," Bush Country Ketchup's founders wrote in an open letter posted on their website a few days ago.

What could possibly motivate such conspiratorial mutterings? It turns out the W of W Ketchup does not refer to President Bush's middle initial. It stands for Washington, as in George Washington, whose likeness adorns the label along with the Stars and Stripes and images of military heroism.

Furthermore, W Ketchup founder Bill Zachary has described his product as "non-partisan" and himself as politically "middle of the road" rather than conservative. That may not be a bad marketing strategy - why restrict the market to diehard Republicans? - but it has infuriated Bush Country co-founder Patrick Spero.

"W Ketchup is a nebulous company. Our mission is clear - the re-election of President Bush and the success of the Republican Party," Mr Spero wrote. "W Ketchup appears to be trying to have it every which way, engaging in Kerry-esque flip-flopping and capitalising on conservatives' affectionate use of President Bush's middle initial."

Bush Country Ketchup may wear its politics on its sleeve (its bottles show a Republican Party elephant balancing a tomato in its trunk with the slogan "Making sure Kerry won't ketchup to Dubya") but it, too, has a dirty little secret. The manufacturer of its fancy $5.99-a-bottle gourmet ketchup is from San Francisco, a bastion of liberal perfidy where Democrat-loving foodies have been shunning Heinz for years - for strictly gastronomic reasons. Clearly, the sauce will be flying for some time.

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