BOSTON — Sen. John F. Kerry had nearly all the ingredients to mount a successful challenge to President Bush: a tepid economy, an unpopular war plagued by setbacks, and a fiercely motivated Democratic base.
But in the end, the Massachusetts senator was missing one key element, political analysts and party strategists agree: a boldly rendered portrayal of himself and his vision for the country.
Counseled by aides who believed that Bush would be done in by his unpopularity and who advised the Democrat to run an upbeat campaign of reassurance, Kerry failed to fend off the Republicans' relentless assault on his character.
"Their great failure early on — from the day the primaries ended through the summer — is that they allowed Bush to define them," said Democratic communications consultant Jon Haber.
By the time Kerry developed a unifying frame for his critique of the president — that all of Bush's choices were marked by bad judgment — it was already mid-September.
"We didn't have a consistent attack strategy on Bush until pretty late in the campaign," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who did not work on Kerry's bid.
But from the moment the Republicans hit the airwaves last spring, they relentlessly pressed the case that Kerry would be too irresolute as president to keep the country safe. Time after time, they spotlighted his often-confusing statements about the Iraq war and portrayed the senator as someone who swayed in the political winds.
That line of attack dominated the GOP's $183-million television ad spending. Coming at a time of war, amid persistent anxiety about terrorism, it proved to be a devastating critique.
After touting his military service during the Democratic primaries, Kerry countered the Republican offensive by stepping up his references to Vietnam once the general election campaign started. The Democrat surrounded himself with emblems from that time, campaigning with his former Swift boat crewmates, meeting local veterans and using frequent references to his patrols on the Mekong Delta.
Convinced that his time as a Navy lieutenant would work as a talisman against charges that he was weak on defense, his campaign never provided a broader sense of Kerry's approach toward national security or a deeper look at his biography, political experts said, leaving him vulnerable when his service record was muddied by attacks from fellow veterans.
In the end, Kerry's Vietnam service "was actually a disadvantage in one way because we thought it never could be pierced," Haber said.
In retrospect, both the promise and the peril facing Kerry's presidential bid were already apparent on a single day last spring.
On March 16, the senator won Illinois' Democratic primary and announced that he had secured the remaining delegates he needed to become his party's nominee — capping an incredibly speedy primary season that party leaders heralded as a sign of historic unity among Democrats.
On the same day, Kerry uttered a sentence that he could not shake for the rest of the campaign.
"I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," he told about 150 people assembled for a town hall meeting at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., referring to his vote on a supplemental budget to fund operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kerry was attempting to explain his support for an earlier version of the measure that would have paid for the wartime expenditures by rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy.
But the president's reelection campaign seized on Kerry's comment about the $87-billion vote as a sign of his indecisive character. The campaign lost no time in splicing it into a television spot.
Bush advertising director Mark McKinnon called the statement the campaign's "iconic moment."
"It framed the race the way we wanted it framed, and he did it for us," McKinnon said.
In the months that followed, Kerry gave his rival more fodder as he tried to explain his position on the Iraq war. The senator — who voted to give Bush authorization to use force against Saddam Hussein in October 2002, but then later denounced the president's handling of the war — found himself repeatedly tripped up by his own clarifications.
During a news conference at the Grand Canyon in early August, he exasperated Democratic allies when he said he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to invade, even after the U.S. was unable to locate weapons of mass destruction.
Kerry argued that even though he did not think Bush should have gone to war under the current circumstances, the congressional vote was important because it gave the president leverage.
As early as February, the Democrat's aides expected the Republicans to accuse Kerry of flip-flopping, people close to the campaign said. It was an obvious tactic to use against a senator who had cast hundreds of votes that could be used against him — especially a lawmaker prone to windy, meandering rhetoric.
But Kerry's advisors, convinced that they were facing a weakened incumbent, did not realize how damaging that argument would be.
While the Republicans were hammering at Kerry, several of his senior advisors — including speechwriter and ad-maker Bob Shrum — lobbied the candidate to take a different tact and offer a positive message. They argued against presenting the Democrat as a candidate of change, warning that swing voters would be alarmed by the notion of shifting course in wartime.
"They felt strongly that the American public had written off George Bush and that they wanted somebody new and different, and all Kerry had to do was run a campaign of reassurance," said one Democrat familiar with the campaign's thinking.
And so the campaign never settled on an overarching theme for Kerry's candidacy, first labeling him in the fall of 2003 as someone with "courage to do what's right for America," then "the real deal."
In the spring, he promised to "build a stronger America," and touted his "lifetime of service and strength." Over the summer, he exhorted audiences to "let America be America," borrowing a line from a Langston Hughes poem.
"Bush may be monotonous and even childish in the way he parrots his themes, but at least they stick. Kerry's didn't," said Dan Payne, a Democratic media strategist in Boston who worked on three of Kerry's Senate races. "It was very confusing, and it fed into the voter's lack of understanding of what he really stands for."
But the candidate did not seem to recognize the problem. Inherently more pragmatic than ideological, he was intent on proving to voters his mastery of the material, rather than giving them a sense of his belief system, people close to the campaign said.
When some aides pressed Kerry to articulate a broader thematic vision, he looked at them blankly and insisted that he was doing so already.
"He was never able to explain what he meant that was bigger than a series of issues and policy positions, and it fed into people saying they didn't know what he stood for," said one Democrat familiar with internal discussions. "I don't think he ever told people, 'Here is the way I approach the world.'."
Instead, the campaign spent most of the spring and summer trying to convince voters of one thing — that Kerry would make a strong commander in chief.
That was the overarching message at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which was dominated by allusions to Kerry's time in Vietnam. His 20 years in the Senate were barely mentioned.
Some saw the focus as a strategic mistake.
"They missed a wonderful opportunity to tell the country about what was wrong with Bush," Payne said. "They figured, 'All we have to do is reintroduce John Kerry.'."
Within days, the senator was under fire from a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an organization of Vietnam veterans still seething about Kerry's antiwar activities when he returned home from Vietnam.
Initially, advisors told Kerry to ignore the group, even as the former soldiers began running television ads that suggested that he concocted his injuries to receive wartime decorations and criticized his antiwar statements.
The charges were ultimately discredited by other veterans who were eyewitnesses to the incidents and by media accounts. But by the time Kerry fought back in mid-August with a pugilistic speech and new ad, the attacks had eroded his standing in public polls.
Furious with his aides, the senator recruited a raft of former Clinton advisors to join the campaign, including former White House press secretaries Joe Lockhart and Mike McCurry, and elevated the standing of some of his longtime Boston hands, such as John Sasso, who joined him on the road as a traveling chief of staff.
By mid-September, Kerry had launched a new assault on Bush's handling of Iraq, neatly sidestepping questions about what he would have done, and derided the president's decision-making on all matters as ill-advised and wrong-headed. After three debates between the two men, most analysts agreed Kerry had emerged the victor.
As he dashed around the country, the candidate pressed his newfound message, telling audiences that he offered "a new direction" and "a fresh start." But by then, apparently, it was too late to sink in.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times