Gamble on Iowa pays off with a big win

John Kerry: Massachusetts Senator
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The Independent US

He called himself "Comeback Kerry", understandably enough, in the giddy aftermath of his upset victory in Iowa on Monday night, a triumphant resurrection of a campaign that, only a few weeks earlier, had seemed close to collapse.

In truth, however, John Kerry's bid for the 2004 Democratic nomination should never have come to such a perilous pass. Mr Kerry's presidential ambitions have been well-known for several decades. When the Democratic candidates first emerged in 2002, Mr Kerry looked the class of the field, right down to his evocative initials of JFK.

John Forbes Kerry is an unusual combination: Austrian-Jewish on his father's side, Boston-Brahmin on his mother's. Tall and craggy-jawed, he is a Hollywood casting director's idea of a perfect US President brought to life.

Mr Kerry went to Yale, but unlike many of his peers (among them a certain George Bush) he joined the armed forces to serve in the Vietnam conflict, where he was wounded and decorated for bravery. In two decades in the Senate he has built a solid liberal record, yet is also recognised as a heavyweight on national security issues.

It is a combination none of his rivals can match: a CV that appeals to the conservative and liberal wings of his party. All the more surprise then, that after being considered the early front-runner, his campaign went off the rails, beset by internal feuds, an overabundance of consultants and deep uncertainty about how to handle the formidable challenge posed by his fellow New Englander Howard Dean.

Before Christmas, Mr Kerry's efforts looked in tatters. Sometimes the most newsworthy part of his candidacy was not himself but his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Portuguese-born widow of Senator John Heinz, of Pennsylvania, and heir to a $600m (£330m) food-company fortune. Noted for her philanthropic work, Ms Heinz Kerry is as outspoken and indiscreet as her husband is reserved.

All too easily on the campaign trail, Mr Kerry would come across as haughty and aloof. Sometimes he behaved as if the nomination were his by birthright, appearing bewildered when the voters indicated that they were thinking otherwise. In New Hampshire, where he once led handsomely, he had slipped by December to third place, and was making little headway in Iowa.

But then the candidate gambled big. He cut loose from the federal campaign financial arrangements, borrowed $6.4m against his own assets and focussed virtually his entire effort and energy on Iowa, where Mr Dean and Richard Gephardt seemed were seen by many as being in a two-horse race.

It was a typical, audacious bet from a man who loves risk and such daredevil sports as motorbike racing and windsurfing. The move paid off brilliantly. But it would not have if Mr Kerry had not also rediscovered his political voice, articulating a clear and urgent message on America's present woes instead of dwelling on his heroics in a war that ended 30 years ago.

But it was Vietnam that first projected Mr Kerry to prominence as hero turned fervent opponent of the war, who said in testimony to Congress in 1971: "How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?" The words captured the disillusioned national mood and vaulted their speaker to national fame. Even then, some saw Mr Kerry as a future candidate for national office.

But the process has taken longer than anticipated. After losing a Congressional election in 1972 - in a Massachusetts district that even the hapless George McGovern managed to carry in that year's presidential election - Mr Kerry became Michael Dukakis's lieutenant-governor, before finally winning a Senate seat in 1984.

On Capitol Hill he quickly made a name for himself with his commanding physical presence, his knowledge of the issues and his fondness for high-profile investigations. Some were futile, but others were very valuable - and none more so than his subcommittee's investigation into the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), whose collapse in 1991 still causes grief to the Bank of England and creditors.

Today no one doubts Mr Kerry's qualifications for the top job. He is a skilled debater who, if given the chance, would by his very presence on a rostrum opposite Mr Bush highlight the shallowness of the President's military credentials, for all his public affectations. On 1 May last year, Mr Bush may have dressed up as a Navy pilot, but Mr Kerry was a naval hero for real.