Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A Fast Finisher's Reputation Now Faces the Ultimate Test

The New York Times
September 29, 2004

A Fast Finisher's Reputation Now Faces the Ultimate Test

In 1996, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts was struggling to keep his job in the face of a stiff challenge by his state's popular, aw-shucks Republican governor, William F. Weld, when midway through a series of televised debates, he began a confession that suddenly became a boast.

"I'm very well aware that when God made me, one of the debits he gave was sort of an overlevel of intensity, maybe an overlevel of earnestness," Mr. Kerry said that August in the fourth of eight debates. "I don't sort of wear every part of me on my sleeve as easily as some people do, and I know that. On the other hand, what I do know about myself is that when you have a fight, I'm a good person to be in a foxhole with, and I know that we're in a fight right now."

Eight years later, Mr. Kerry is in the fight of his political life, against President Bush, and he and his supporters are counting on the reputation he cemented in that 1996 campaign and again in the Democratic primaries this year as a candidate who runs best from behind, a political Seabiscuit who pulls ahead after from his anxiety-producing slow starts.

"If this were a boxing match, he might be losing on the cards for the first five or six rounds," said Dan Payne, a media consultant in Boston and a veteran of several Kerry campaigns. "And then when he realizes, 'I could lose this if I don't do something more forceful,' then he comes to life and is able to finish off an opponent."

Mr. Payne added: "It's the times leading up to those moments that get him in trouble. He puts it on automatic pilot."

As Mr. Kerry approaches this campaign's home stretch, with the first debate tomorrow night, there is much in his past to suggest that he believes elections are won in the endgame, that he holds back on purpose and begins concentrating intently on the race only when he believes the voters are, too. It remains to be seen whether an approach that has worked in Mr. Kerry's liberal home state or with Democratic primary voters eager to anoint a consensus candidate will be effective in a national election, but Mr. Kerry has little choice but to perform at his peak now.

He clearly is trying. Over the past month, he has retooled his campaign staff, sharpened his attacks on Mr. Bush and set aside a planned focus on the economy in favor of a steady critique of the president's handling of the war in Iraq that has produced blunt headlines and more prominent news coverage.

Mr. Kerry has been in similar spots before. By most accounts, he did not come alive in his 1996 race against Mr. Weld until their fifth debate, in mid-September. In that encounter, he unleashed a string of one-liners and ripostes, attacking Mr. Weld as an equivocator by invoking the name of the governor's sometime adviser, who had just resigned from President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign after disclosure of an affair with a prostitute. "Governor," Mr. Kerry said, "you switch your positions faster than your friend Dick Morris." Mr. Weld's only rebuttal was a blush.

Afterward, Mr. Kerry told The Boston Herald: "It's time to rock and roll. This is the time when people are listening. I've got to focus." Seven weeks later, Mr. Kerry won by seven percentage points, in a state where Mr. Clinton beat Bob Dole by 33 points.

At least one candidate who has faced Mr. Kerry says his approach is fully as much strategy as it is alchemy. James Shannon, who worked on Mr. Kerry's only failed race, in 1972, and lost to him in the Democratic Senate primary in 1984, said Mr. Kerry's reputation as a good closer was deserved but oversimplified. Mr. Shannon said he thought Mr. Kerry's approach derived from that 1972 Congressional race in suburban Lowell, Mass., in which a poll several weeks before the election showed him ahead of his Republican opponent by nearly 30 points. Instead, Mr. Kerry wound up losing, after badly misjudging the impact of last-minute attacks by his opponent and the hostile local newspaper.

Mr. Kerry "seemed to be sailing into victory and had the thing snatched away from him," Mr. Shannon said. "You can talk about 'the closer,' yeah, but I think that does him a disservice, as if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat. It has to do with the importance of sharpening your focus at the end, and the fact that the race is defined at the end.''

It is not entirely clear just how defined the current contest is. For much of the past year, polls have shown Mr. Bush with approval ratings that few incumbents would envy but Mr. Kerry having trouble capitalizing on that. Recent polls have shown Mr. Bush holding an edge, though there is volatility in the electorate that Mr. Kerry might yet exploit.

Many of Mr. Kerry's oldest friends express exasperation at his willingness to drift at times in his campaigns. His tendency to focus best in the crunch is a longtime habit, dating at least to his days as a champion debater at Yale, and one that cannot be explained as a result of mere procrastination or inattention.

"He was so incredibly overcommitted to activities, it was hard getting him together," said Bradford Snell, one of his debate partners in those days. "At 11 or 12 midnight the day before, I'd finally be able to corral him. When his back is up against the wall, the adrenaline starts flowing and he just does phenomenal things. It's a last-minute, rush-type operation."

In debates, Mr. Snell said, Mr. Kerry was "able to fully comprehend the other side and find the flaw and pull it apart. One of the worst things you can do is get too programmed. You must listen to the other side in order to really prevail. I remember a couple of times, I'd make some suggestions and he'd just say, 'I've got this one.' It seemed as if he'd prepared for months."

Mr. Bush's aides have gone out of their way in recent weeks to talk up Mr. Kerry's prowess as a debater, with the president's strategist Matthew Dowd calling Mr. Kerry "the best debater ever to run for president," and "better than Cicero." In fact, the record shows that Mr. Kerry, so often windy in prepared speeches, can be succinct in spontaneous exchanges.

In his second debate against Mr. Weld in 1996, Mr. Kerry interrupted him at one point by saying, "There you go again," Ronald Reagan's famous line against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

"I knew Ronald Reagan," Mr. Weld replied, echoing Lloyd Bentsen's invocation of his acquaintance with John F. Kennedy in putting down Dan Quayle in 1988, only to have Mr. Kerry shoot back, "So did I, and we don't need another Ronald Reagan type in Washington."

In their first debate, with the mother of a police officer who had been killed in the line of duty sitting in the audience, Mr. Weld demanded that Mr. Kerry defend his opposition to the death penalty and explain "why the life of the man who murdered her son is worth more than the life of her son."

Mr. Kerry, a former prosecutor, replied quietly: "It's not worth more. It's not worth anything. It's scum that ought to be thrown in jail for the rest of its life." But, he added, in an unmistakable reference to his service in Vietnam (a war that Mr. Weld had avoided on account of a bad back), "I've been opposed to the death penalty. I know something about killing. I don't like killing. I don't think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing."

In 32 years, Mr. Kerry has lost only one campaign - that first race for Congress - and has seldom lost a debate. He hates to lose.

Forty years ago this fall, The Yale Daily News reported that Mr. Kerry's team had lost a debate with Cambridge University, conducted by trans-Atlantic telephone cable, in which Mr. Kerry's side argued against the proposition that "Red China should be admitted to the United Nations." Days later, Mr. Kerry wrote a letter to the editor, protesting that description on the grounds that the audiences were lopsided, with the Cambridge group consisting almost entirely of United Nations supporters.

"For this reason," Mr. Kerry wrote then, "the vote was merely a token one" and he added, "The debate was neither won nor lost by either side."

But from his next debate till Nov. 2, Mr. Kerry cannot be content with a draw.