He's reaching out, but will Kerry connect with America?

This is a week in four acts for John Kerry. For the first three, the hero of the piece will be offstage, making a progress from battleground state to battleground state, moving steadily closer to the convention city, where in his absence a dozen speakers will sing his praises to the sky. For these three acts, only distant echoes of his march will reach Boston. But finally, on Thursday evening, the man himself will march on stage. And for the Democratic half of America, and much of the rest of the world beside, there is but one question. Will he be Hamlet, or Henry V?

Mr Kerry's drawbacks are well documented. As Barack Obama, the Democrat's new wunderkind who will deliver the keynote address in Boston, observed of him: "Sometimes John Kerry has no oomph." He is no orator, although the arrival of the vibrant John Edwards has infected him with a little borrowed excitement. Nor is spontaneity among his gifts. Mr Kerry comes across as a most calculating politician. Try as he may, his every word and every deed look planned, deliberately chosen to achieve a desired effect.

Of course he knows the issues well, far better than George Bush ­ but maybe too well. Calculation also means nuance, to cover every facet of an argument, and leaves no target for the enemy; but his cleverness can tumble into nonsense. "Yes, I voted for it [an $87bn appropriation for Iraq] before I voted against it," Mr Kerry famously said.

There is a convoluted explanation, rooted in the complexity of the legislation ­ but no audience will sit quietly around to absorb it. Small wonder the most direct hit of the Bush campaign has been to brand Mr Kerry a "flip-flopper", a Hamlet who cannot make up his mind and stick to it.

But on one thing he has never wavered. He has always wanted to be president ­ and like Bill Clinton, though perhaps less overtly ­ he has shown it. It is not just those initials, JFK, and a few meetings with his murdered hero in the Massachusetts summers of the early 1960s. So aggressively did he seek the presidency of the Yale Political Union two or three years later, he might have been campaigning for the White House. His classmates teased him with serenades of "Hail to the Chief".

When he returned from Vietnam as a disillusioned hero to testify to Congress against the war ­ attracting Richard Nixon's paranoid attentions in the process ­ he was plainly a young man with very big ambitions.

There have been vicissitudes along the way: a first, failed House campaign in 1972, the break-up of his first marriage, the anguish of recurring memories of Vietnam and of comrades lost and, barely seven months ago, the seemingly imminent demise of a lacklustre, unfocused presidential campaign. But Mr Kerry is never better than when staring down the barrel of defeat. He came back from political death. Now he is about to accept his party's crown, to stand just one election away from mission accomplished. Will he succeed and what sort of President would he be? The answer to both questions is unknown. Right now the polls put the Massachusetts senator and Mr Bush in a dead heat. But the advantage may lie with the former.

History shows that in a campaign involving a less-than-popular incumbent ­ and Mr Bush's approval rating is less than 50 per cent ­ undecided voters in the end usually break for the challenger. Events (a major terrorist attack, say, or the capture of Osama bin Laden) may rescue the President. But nothing Mr Bush himself says or does is likely to change minds now.

Last but not least, as Mr Obama has noted: "John Kerry historically always hit his mark when it counted." As the 2004 primary season turnaround showed, he is a good closer. He is also an imposing, skilled debater ­ one likely to prove a far tougher opponent for Mr Bush than the dreary and condescending Al Gore four years ago.

But what of John Kerry the President? Forget the ultra-liberal label the Republicans have tried to pin on him. On Iraq, he promises to be more internationalist than Mr Bush; otherwise his policy scarcely differs. On the economy, he is a free trader and a deficit hawk who would raise taxes on the very rich to help pay for the war and modestly expand healthcare coverage. If it all sounds like Bill Clinton, it is.

Like Mr Clinton, a President Kerry would govern from the centre, not from the left as Mr Bush has governed so aggressively from the right. Yes, he may be short on "oomph". John Kerry is indeed a cautious politician, but after the recklessnesses of Iraq, that too could be a virtue.

If he shows Americans he is strong and competent, with a sensible-yet-uplifting plan for the future ­ not unlike Henry V ­ the John Kerry week in Boston could ensure that the four years starting on Inauguration Day on 20 January 2005 belong to him as well.

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