John Kerry: The contender

He's just a Massachusetts liberal. He lacks the common touch. He looks French. (He even speaks the lingo, dammit.) The dreaded Republican "opposition research" boys should have a field day with the Democratic presidential hopeful. One problem: he saved a man's life in battle
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The Independent Online

He's 6ft 4in tall, and if he grew a beard he would be a passable likeness of Abraham Lincoln. But towering though he is, John Forbes Kerry has spent most of his two decades in Congress in the shadow of others.

Since he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1985 he has been only the "junior" Senator from Massachusetts. For much of that time he was the "other" Kerry (or rather Kerrey), less known than Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, like himself a decorated Vietnam veteran who made his bid for the Democratic nomination back in 1992. And of course he's the "other" JFK, sharing the initials, the privileged background, and the home state of the handsome young president who has become a modern American myth.

But now John Kerry finally has the limelight to himself. For the next eight months he will be the uncontested leader of the Democratic party, its designated (if not yet formally anointed) challenger against George Bush in November. In an era when politics in general has moved to the right, when the soundbite is king, and everyone strives for the common touch, Kerry at first glance is an odd choice.

By American standards he is a man of the left who, according to theNational Journal, owns the most liberal voting record of all 100 senators. Soundbites may be an unavoidable staple of the campaign trail, but this JFK's forte is the rounded argument, the measured presentation of both sides of a case. The approach is fine in the self-important setting of the Senate, but - as Kerry learnt when his presidential bid almost collapsed last year - is a disaster on the campaign trail.

Finally, if any qualities are more frequently associated with Kerry than gravitas, they are elitism and aloofness - not exactly ingredients of being one of the boys. His father may have been descended from Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, but his mother was a Forbes, a founding family of the Boston Brahmin caste. The son of a diplomat, Kerry was educated in Europe and then at exclusive New England private schools and Yale, where he was admitted into the innermost insider citadel of the Skull and Bones club.

All this will be grist for the mill of the Republicans' dreaded "opposition research" boys as they scour Kerry's past for material with which to portray him as the quintessential Massachusetts liberal, who has spent half his adult life in the talking shop of Capitol Hill, utterly out of touch with mainstream America.

The process indeed started a year ago, when Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq and Howard Dean was a mere speck in Kerry's rear-view mirror. "He looks French," one White House official said of the presumed front-runner, delivering the ultimate insult in the run-up to the Iraq war. The Bush aide might also have mentioned that Kerry actually has a French relative, first cousin Brice Lalonde who was an environment minister under François Mitterrand, and that he speaks decent French and a little German.

Now Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House and a leading attack dog of the Bush campaign, is making jokes about Kerry's time at a Swiss boarding school, while Republican operatives are poring over the thousands of Senate votes Kerry has cast in search of inconsistencies that can be dredged up to portray him as a liberal, a traitor, a pacifist, a wimp - or whatever else suits the attack ad of the moment. But unlike Michael Dukakis, the last Massachusetts liberal to get the treatment (from the campaign of Bush's father in 1988) Kerry will be no push-over. If nothing else, he's a fighter.

There is a pattern to Kerry's life. When things get easy, he coasts and slips into bad old ways. That was Kerry Mk I on the campaign trail - prolix, not so much unable to get his message across as seeming to have no message at all. Dean was the man who articu- lated the rage Democrats felt. Kerry was exactly as the Bush crowd will be depicting him: a waffler who first supported and then opposed the war in Iraq, who straddles every issue and whose positions are not stands but finely calculated assessments of the political pay-off. Then things go wrong - and a new John Kerry emerges, with all guns blazing.

It was like that in Vietnam, the formative experience of his life, the war where he was twice decorated for valour (once in circumstances so bold and reckless that his commander wondered whether he deserved a citation or a court-martial). Then Kerry the returning war hero turned against the war. "How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" the lanky young man told a Senate committee investigating the war in 1971, instantly earning himself a place on Richard Nixon's notorious "enemies list".

It was like that in 1996, when his Senate re-election opponent was Massachusetts' witty, popular and formidable Republican governor William Weld. John Kerry seemed in danger of defeat, but turned matters around in a series of TV debates with Weld that political connoisseurs remember to this day.

And so it was in this campaign, when Kerry was rescued by Dean's blunders, the living ghosts of Vietnam - but above all by his knack of being at his best when his back is against the wall. In late autumn, with his poll numbers in single digits and his money all but gone, he sacked his campaign manager, took out a $6.4m mortgage on his Boston home, and decided to bet the ranch on the caucuses in Iowa, ignoring New Hampshire which everyone said was win-or-bust for him.

The gamble was a masterstroke. Kerry won first Iowa, then New Hampshire and ultimately 27 of the 30 primaries held so far. The wheel had come full circle. The man most people expected to win the nomination 18 months ago had duly triumphed, but after vicissitudes no one could have imagined. But can he pull it off again against a sitting President?

Right now, he is in an uncommonly strong position for a Democratic nominee-apparent at this stage in proceedings. The party is united, after a primary campaign which has invigorated the rank-and-file and where the candidates, for once, have not functioned as a circular firing squad. The polished Bush machine is making unaccustomed mistakes.

The answer lies in how Kerry handles those three apparent contradictions of his candidacy. First and foremost he must not let his opponents tar him as the liberal the Senate scorecard suggests. In fact his record is more centrist than it sounds. Second, the man who shies from soundbites must keep them coming - and not relapse into comfortable, numbing legislator-speak just because the polls put him few points ahead of the President. That proved almost fatal before; it would certainly be fatal now.

Which leads to his third and most important task: to remain a regular guy. Here Vietnam plays a vital role. The outwardly haughty Boston Brahmin once did what Texan good ole' boy George W never did: he saved a man's life in battle. Just before the Iowa caucuses, Jim Rassman, a retired Los Angeles policeman, told a Kerry rally how the young Navy lieutenant had dared withering enemy fire to pull him from the Bay Hap river on 13 March 1969. The two men tearfully embraced as only old battlefield buddies can. Guys don't come more regular than that. It was the most powerful single moment of the entire 2004 campaign so far, and it might yet help Kerry to the biggest prize of all.