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Next stop: Super Tuesday (continued)

KERRY DIDN’T SEEM like such a bad speaker on Tuesday night, by which time I was back in front of my TV set. Amid roars of "Kerry! Kerry! Kerry!" and "Bring it on! Bring it on!" — a mocking taunt of Bush that has become the signature of Kerry’s campaign — the senator delivered highlights from his standard stump speech. He seemed delighted when the crowd joined him word for word. For instance, when he blasted the "influence-peddlers" and "the special interests that call the White House home," everyone chimed in, saying, "We’re coming. You’re going. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out."

There was real emotion when he saluted the Vietnam veterans who had joined his campaign, led by former Georgia senator Max Cleland. "In the hardest moments of the last month, I depended on the same band of brothers that I depended on 30 years ago," Kerry said. "We’re a little older, a little grayer. But I’ll tell you this: we still know how to fight for our country."

After he began a sentence with, "And if I’m president ...," the room erupted in a chant of "When! When! When!"

It was an exciting day for Kerry, a day when he seemed to catch every conceivable break. He even managed, in a small way, to exceed expectations despite finishing pretty much where the tracking polls had predicted for the past week. Late Tuesday afternoon, Slate posted the average results of exit polls from six news organizations showing Kerry with a relatively slim lead over Dean of 36 percent to 31 percent. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer referred to the exit polls several times early on, telling viewers that he expected Kerry’s 12-point margin to narrow. It never did.

That didn’t stop some of the most ridiculous spinning I’ve heard in some time. Lieberman, who finished a miserable fifth, with less than nine percent of the vote, sought to portray Kerry’s and Dean’s finishes as meaningless because they come from states bordering New Hampshire, and described himself as having finished in "a three-way split for third place." He added: "You and I both know that the national pundits didn’t expect this, did they? The people of New Hampshire put me in the ring, and that’s where we’re going to stay." Within hours, there were reports that Lieberman was thinking of getting out.

Edwards, after a fourth-place finish in which he lost 20 points off his Iowa showing, talked about "this extraordinary energy and momentum, and we’re going to take it right to February 3." He also nearly dislocated his shoulders from patting himself on the back, lauding "this positive, uplifting vision of hope that has captured Iowa and has captured New Hampshire." One suspects the only thing Edwards is trying to capture right now is the slot as Kerry’s running mate.

Clark — whom for some reason I’ve developed an aversion to in the past week — was babbling about growing up poor.

Which leaves Dean, who substituted coolly spoken unreality for last week’s primal scream. "We really are going to win this nomination, aren’t we? You are amazing. You are amazing," he said. Dean was eloquent, repeating some of the better lines from his stump speech, even the ones that Republicans would use to cast him as hopelessly liberal. He referred to Bush’s criticism of "quotas" as "a race-coded word" designed to exclude "communities of color," adding, "The president played the race card, and that alone entitles him to a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas." If I’m not mistaken, Dean was also the only candidate to refer to a woman’s right to choose and to oppose discrimination on the basis of "sexual orientation." He sounded like a man of principle. Unfortunately for him, the only patently untrue thing he said was, "We did what we needed to do tonight."

As the night wound down to a close, Kerry was being interviewed on CNN. And he looked pissed. Judy Woodruff asked him about his "20-year record" of taking such liberal positions as voting for tax increases and gun restrictions, and for opposing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that withholds federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples. (Kerry opposes gay marriage, but has said DOMA struck him as gay-bashing.)

"I’ve never thought of going hunting with an AK-47," he replied. As for taxes, he said he’s voted for cuts on occasion. And if being a liberal means supporting balanced budgets and public education, he said, well, call him a liberal. "People are fed up with labels," he added.

A Newsweek poll shows Kerry beating Bush by a margin of 49 percent to 46 percent — and that was before the New Hampshire primary. Such polls are meaningless this far before the election, of course, but they do suggest that the public will be willing at least to give Kerry a hearing. Can Kerry make the most of that opportunity?

As Dean’s monumental collapse shows, predictions are a fool’s game. But the Democratic nomination is now clearly Kerry’s to lose. Barring yet another upset, Kerry will accept the nomination next July at the FleetCenter, in his hometown, and begin the task of trying to defeat George W. Bush. He’s not the perfect candidate by any means. He’s not a great speaker, he rarely shows much passion, and his persona is cool bordering on cold. Is Oprah Nation ready for a president who refuses to double as First Pal?

Yet Kerry is also solid, experienced, smart, and progressive. He is a decent debater, and should score points against Bush on national television. He’s not going to embarrass his party. At the very least, moderate Democratic candidates for House and Senate seats would be happy to campaign with him— as they would not with Dean. Thus, even if Bush won, the Democrats would be able to hold their own in the congressional races.

Outside the St. Pius X Parish Center, Chris Brown, of Hudson, was holding a BUSH-CHENEY 2004 sign. "It would be insane to vote Democrat if you’re concerned with your family’s safety," he told me.

That’s what the Democrats are up against in this, the first post-9/11 presidential election. John Kerry has traveled a long road to get where he is today. The road ahead is even longer.

Correction. Last week I referred to a Kerry rally I had attended in early January as having taken place in Gilford, New Hampshire. In fact, it was in Milford.

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

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Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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