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Stuck in neutral
With the Kerry campaign spinning its wheels, some Democrats are worried — while Republicans are positively gleeful

WHAT A DIFFERENCE two months make. Shortly after vanquishing his Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination, Senator John Kerry was hot: a constant presence on television, a newsmagazine cover boy, and ahead of President Bush in the polls. Kerry’s ironic battle cry — "Bring it on!", meant to invoke both a fighting spirit and Bush’s own ill-considered taunt to Iraqi insurgents — brought hope to Democrats and struck fear into the hearts of Republicans.

Today, it is Kerry who is on the defensive. Despite weeks of terrible news for George W. Bush driven by the deteriorating situation in Iraq and damaging testimony before the 9/11 commission, the president has moved slightly ahead of Kerry in the polls. Bush’s rise has been fueled by more than $50 million worth of negative advertising aimed at casting Kerry as a flip-flopping tax-hiker who’s weak on national security. Kerry himself has come across as tired and tiresome, caught up in controversies over whether he threw away his medals or his ribbons at an anti-war protest 33 years ago, and seemingly unable to give a straight answer even to the simple question of whether he owns an SUV. (No; well, okay, his family owns one. Sheesh.)

A cover line in the current Newsweek reads KERRY’S STUMBLING START. The New York Times’ off-lead this past Sunday, by chief political reporter Adam Nagourney, was headlined KERRY STRUGGLING TO FIND A THEME, DEMOCRATS FEAR. Among those who expressed to Nagourney their frustration with the pace and tone of the Kerry campaign were Al Gore’s 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile (on the record); North Carolina senator and former presidential rival John Edwards (who reportedly expressed his concern to his "aides"); and Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell, who said Kerry can’t afford to wait until fall to rev it up. "If he hasn’t established himself as a plausible alternative, people will have tuned out," Rendell said.

Now Kerry gets to begin again. This week, his campaign unveiled two 60-second television ads aimed at introducing him to the public — early by the standards of past campaigns, perhaps, but late given how much money and effort the Bushies have already invested in defining Kerry in their own negative light. The Kerry campaign is reportedly spending more than $25 million to show the ads, titled "Heart" and "Lifetime," in 19 key states through the end of the month. The ads are gauzy and not very specific (for instance, his support for Bill Clinton’s tax hike is described only as "a decisive vote that created 20 million new jobs"), dwelling heavily on his war heroism and his family. But that may be exactly what his campaign needs if Kerry is to get back into the race.

To this point, Kerry’s candidacy has lacked a narrative other than opposition to Bush. That was enough for the red-meat Democrats who gave him their party’s nomination, but it’s not the narrative that will win him the White House this November. For that he needs a new story. And the personal is not a bad place to start. But there’s another narrative at play, too, and that is Kerry’s own experience as a candidate who seems unable to rouse himself unless his back is against the wall. He showed that with former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the presidential primaries, and he showed it in 1996, when he won a tough Senate re-election battle against then–Massachusetts governor Bill Weld.

Democratic political consultant Dan Payne, who has worked for Kerry in the past, but who this year is writing an inside-dope column for the Boston Globe, published a telling analysis of Kerry’s current torpor a few weeks ago, showing how Kerry had departed from a rather eloquent speech on economic insecurity written by his chief strategist, Bob Shrum, and rambled on incoherently instead.

Still, Payne professes not to be worried. "Kerry is coachable. He has been a very good candidate on TV in my experience," Payne told me. "He can rise to the occasion. He is good at seizing the moment. We are at a time in the campaign, however, when he does not look real good. It’s the tendency of John to break fast, get out in front, and then, as the race moves into the back stretch, he kind of loafs and drops back, and people start to question whether he’s really right for this run, and does he know how to win. John is the sort of person who needs to be scared before he acts."

That would be reassuring except for this: Kerry isn’t running against Bill Weld or Howard Dean anymore. He’s running against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. If, as Payne suggests, Kerry needs to be scared, then the time for him to be scared is right now.

FRANK BECKMANN, a talk-show host for Detroit’s WJR Radio, was about eight minutes into a puffy nine-minute interview last Friday with Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, when he suddenly let loose with a haymaker.

"Let me ask you a difficult question," Beckmann said. "There are people from the right, Rush Limbaugh on our very radio station, who say there’s a move in the Democratic Party to dump John Kerry before the convention. When you hear that, what do you think?"

Cahill answered so calmly that it seemed like she had expected the question — and had rehearsed her answer. "I think that that is loony," she said. "There is absolutely no feeling for that, and there is no evidence of that. Senator Kerry has a united party to a degree that I have never seen in my lifetime. And from meetings with mayors around the country, meetings on the Hill, meetings with Democratic leaders, they are completely united behind the Kerry candidacy. So I think that that is actually a pipe dream on the Republicans’ part."

Later that day, Limbaugh replayed the exchange with evident glee, which more or less confirmed Cahill’s contention that almost no one is talking about dumping Kerry except for a few Republicans and other assorted malcontents hoping to spread a troublesome meme. But bogus though the fantasies of a drug-addled has-been like Limbaugh may be, they reflect real discontent over the halting pace and uneven tone of Kerry’s campaign. Consider:

• In an April 24 piece for the Washington Post, John Harris reported on how easily Republicans have been able to characterize Kerry as a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist, even though Kerry is running against the scion of one of the country’s most blue-blooded families. Among other things, Republicans have been trying to paint Kerry as somehow French, which apparently is now considered prima facie evidence of cultural elitism and anti-Americanism. The Republican National Committee mocked Kerry’s "misery index" of Bush economic failures by releasing an "Index De Le Miserables." And after Kerry suggested to Tim Russert during a recent Meet the Press interview that he had met some foreign leaders at restaurants in New York, House majority leader Tom DeLay actually said, "I don’t know where John Kerry eats or what restaurants he attends in New York City. But I tell you, at the Taste of Texas restaurant — it’s this great steak house in Houston, Texas — the only foreign leader you meet there is called filet mignon."

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Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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