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And then there was one (continued)

Show off the candidate’s lighter side. This might seem to contradict Sabato’s advice. But with no Democratic challengers to worry about, Kerry should presumably be able to do both. Kerry has some unconventional, even dangerous, hobbies: windsurfing, flying, riding his motorcycle. He also plays guitar, and when his reputation for aloofness came up at last Sunday’s New York Times/CBS News debate, Kerry responded with a bit of air fretwork.

At this point, the public knows Kerry as little more than the stern, scowling candidate who pops up on television every Tuesday night with his "band of brothers" from Vietnam, who "knows something about aircraft carriers for real," and who angrily challenges Bush to "bring it on." By offering a lighter, more well-rounded image of himself, according to this line of thinking, he can humanize his persona and give voters some idea of who he is before the Republican Attack Machine can define him.

Pick a running mate who will improve Kerry’s chances of winning. Well, of course. But that’s easier said than done. Edwards would seem like the obvious choice: he’s charismatic and likable, and comes from the South, which has become a notoriously difficult region for the Democrats. But Edwards is also an inexperienced first-term senator who managed to win only one state during the primaries, and who reportedly does not enjoy a particularly warm relationship with Kerry. So it’s probably safe to strike Edwards off the list.

Michael Goldman suggests Florida senator Bob Graham, a bust as a presidential candidate but someone with the requisite gravitas. The Kerry campaign is reportedly impressed with Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm — but she’s out of the running because, as a native of Canada, she doesn’t pass constitutional muster. Former Georgia senator Max Cleland and Indiana senator Evan Bayh, who might help Kerry take neighboring Ohio, are other names that come up. And, of course, New York senator Hillary Clinton’s name is floated by Democratic partisans and Republican conspiracy theorists alike.

At this point, though, the early favorite appears to be New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a former congressman who served in the Clinton administration as UN ambassador and secretary of energy. Richardson is experienced in foreign policy; when the North Korean government wanted to make overtures to the Bush administration, it was through Richardson. And because Richardson is Latino, choosing him would allow the risk-averse Kerry to appear to be taking a chance, albeit a very slight one.

OF COURSE, the flying monkeys of the Bush-Cheney campaign aren’t the only ill-mannered creatures the Kerry forces must worry about. Members of the media, too, will play a crucial role. New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s appalling performance at Sunday’s debate — hectoring Kerry with "Are you a liberal? Are you a liberal?", and demanding of all the candidates, "Really quick, is God on America’s side?" — is, unfortunately, all too typical of the shallow, arrogant attitude that the Fourth Estate brings to presidential campaigns (see "Media Log," BostonPhoenix.com, March 1).

Already there are warning signs. The Republicans would love to turn this into a campaign about gay marriage and Kerry’s status as a "Massachusetts liberal." It doesn’t help that Kerry, who opposes same-sex marriage but supports civil unions, has managed to take tortured, contradictory positions on anti-marriage amendments to the US Constitution (against) and the Massachusetts Constitution (for, sort of, as long as the right of civil unions is guaranteed). Kerry is chary of the L-word as well. But are such issues really what the 2004 presidential campaign is about? And will the media let the Republicans get away with it?

"We need not to let things ride and just let things be established as the conventional wisdom," says Geneva Overholser, a Washington-based journalism professor for the University of Missouri. Overholser believes the media should pose "a broader range of questions than only those that are raised by the candidates from either party" in order to "make sure that public concerns are raised."

Timothy Karr, executive director of Mediachannel.org, worries about the ease with which political partisans are able to inject false talking points into the mainstream media — as with Al Gore’s alleged (and disproven) propensity to lie or, now, Kerry’s supposed reliance on special-interest money, which got a boost from an online video ad posted on the Bush-Cheney Web site. "There is a tendency in the media to rely too heavily on attribution rather than fact-checking," Karr says.

On Tuesday night, even before the polls had closed in California, the monkeys were circling. On CNN, Republican political consultant Ralph Reed said of Kerry, "He voted 350 times for higher taxes." On WLVI-TV (Channel 56), political analyst Jon Keller, referring to Republican hopes of casting Kerry as a gay-marriage supporter, told viewers he’d heard a Washington source predict that "Karl Rove will have Kerry in a dress by mid May."

From now until his big night in front of the teleprompter at the FleetCenter, Kerry will be in constant danger. If he makes the most of this period — if he fights back, introduces both himself and his ideas to the broader public, and chooses the right running mate — he can come out of the next four and a half months in better shape than he went in.

But if he lets Bush take the initiative — if he lets his guard down, if he returns to the somnolent pre-Iowa style that nearly ended his presidential campaign — then the flying monkeys are going to swoop down and carry him off before he knows what is happening.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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