Are candidates gutsy by nature?

Are candidates gutsy by nature?
(Illustration by Lou Beach / For The Times)
On a quiet, crisp morning in an Iowa field, John F. Kerry wades in the tall grass and lays a shotgun on his shoulder. Clad in forest green and blaze orange, against a patchwork of brown fields, he inspects the neck of a freshly killed pheasant — while, in turn, a covey of photographers inspects him, and aides jot notes that will become campaign website fodder about the senator's love of hunting.

Nine hundred miles and an ideological divide away, George W. Bush putters across a lake on his Texas ranch, bass rod in hand, enjoying the quiet of the water and the company of his Scottish terrier, with a film crew perched on his bow. The camera pans as the president lands a small bass and lets the dog take a few licks. Then he plucks the hook, releases the fish, and flashes a quick grin for viewers of the Outdoor Life Network.

In the last few months, the candidates have dug deep into their arsenals, targeting in these instances more than 7 million hunters and more than 20 million fishermen in 20 contentious states.

Every constituency counts, and although Bush and Kerry have lately refused almost all interview requests from newspapers, both agreed to talk to the outdoors magazine Field & Stream.

In its October cover story, "A Sporting Debate," the candidates opine on gun control, the environment and whether the magazine will continue to circulate on Air Force One. The real topic, however, is spin.

"I hunt and fish and climb mountains," says Kerry. "I'm a gun owner. I'm a hunter…. And I'm never going to vote to take away guns." His sporting résumé, however, fails to impress the National Rifle Assn., which gave him an F rating.

Nor do Bush's claims about the importance of "cleaner air, better land and cleaner water" win over the League of Conservation Voters, which charged him with "compiling the worst environmental record of any president in the history of our nation."

It's clear that the candidates are not too proud to play to the electorate's impressionable core. Forget kissing babies; when the country is at war, terrorists are plotting and candidates spend weeks debating assault-weapon legislation, mass-media ops that magnify virility make sense.

But these outdoors appearances are more complicated than cynics and party demagogues will admit. Skeptics quickly dismiss the candidates' sporting excursions as political opportunism, but long before this campaign, Kerry windsurfed and Bush jogged. In the days before the Democratic convention, Kerry insisted on sailboarding, and until he injured his knee, Bush ran every day and had ordered Air Force One to carry a treadmill. Both candidates enjoy bikes; Kerry rides an $8,000 Serotta Ottrott and the president a $3,000 Trek Fuel 98.

Bush invites photographers to watch him cutting trees on his Texas ranch (reminiscent of Reagan clearing brush at his Santa Barbara ranch), and when he runs, his erect posture and flat belly seem to mock President Clinton's loping gait.

Kerry allows himself to be photographed in neoprene or Gore-Tex, shredding waves and packed powder. He took up kite boarding, a perilous sport, and he has competed in a windsurfing race around Martha's Vineyard that takes up to 10 hours.

But oddly, both campaigns keep a lid on moments such as these. The president has allowed only one reporter to join him mountain biking, disallowed any photographs and declined to answer questions about his tumble over the handlebars. Kerry gave the slip to reporters who tried to watch him windsurf off Massachusetts. The image of these men without their political shells scares the campaigns, and perhaps with a good reason. According to close friends of Bush and Kerry, the candidates are more similar to each other — and less like average voters — than either party would like to admit.

Windsurfing star Nevin Sayre met Kerry in 1998 after the senator invited Sayre to windsurf off Massachusetts. "There was a full-on storm that day — raging wind, pouring rain. John called and said, 'Get your butt over here, it's blowing!'

"He wasn't a very competent windsurfer," says Sayre, who occasionally joins Kerry. "He was getting slammed and catapulted over the board. But he kept getting up and loving every minute of it. He loved the challenge. He was totally willing to fail in front of someone he had never met."

Kerry's friends say his thirst for challenges is an important aspect of his character. "He enjoys the thrill," says David Thorne, a childhood friend and brother of Kerry's first wife. "Part of it is adrenaline, but it's more about pushing the envelope. He wants to get totally immersed in things and master them. He thrives on challenge."

But acquaintances say Kerry's sports also point to a weakness: It takes intense pressure to push Kerry to a peak performance. Political observers have long said Kerry requires adversity to excel.

"We were in Aruba, on vacation, and John would be windsurfing hard, for three hours at a time, until his hands were bleeding," recalls Sayre. "I think [Kerry's wife] Teresa would prefer him to spend time with her. But he used duct tape to stop the blood, and headed back out. He seems the most focused when everything is against him."

Before Bush injured his knee, running captivated him a similar way. In 2002, he told Runner's World magazine that he was so distraught after his dad's 1992 defeat that he decided to train for a marathon — so hard that he became ill. His time was 3 hours, 44 minutes. "It was one of the great experiences of my life," he said.

Sometimes, one of Bush's running partners says, his regimen is self-defeating. All-American miler Paul Carrozza joined the president in a 5K race for White House employees in 2002. At the starting line, Bush informed Carrozza that he intended to finish in less than 20 minutes, a personal record.

He then walked from his limo to the start without stretching, and sprinted the first mile in 6 minutes, 30 seconds, within his goal. Then he slowed. Carrozza later said the president's breathing indicated that his body was becoming anaerobic, not the best strategy for a 5K race.

"He likes to run the first mile as hard as he can, and then try to deal with the consequences at the end," said Carrozza. "It's incredibly painful to run that way…. I've advised him to start slower. But he'll push as hard as he can, regardless of how much pain he'll have to eventually endure. He told me that it makes him feel young again, that it washes his soul."

But voters never get to see these snapshots. Instead, the campaigns fabricate moments to convey the passions the candidates share with mainstream America. Outdoors enthusiasts take seriously the images that emerge.

Windsurfers blew up after the Bush camp aired commercials of a windsurfing Kerry flip-flopping in the breeze. The senator, they told national publications, holds a steady sail, regardless of his politics.

Conservatives and golfers criticized television ads for Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" that depict the president threatening terrorists, then telling reporters, "Now, watch this golf swing."

But no amount of spin can erase images such as Ford's famous clumsiness, Carter's near-fainting during a long run and Bush Sr.'s ferocity in horseshoes. They linger in our minds as long as anything the candidates said.

But is that so bad? To riff on a famous quote by Bertrand Russell: If every world leader walked 25 miles a day, there would be no war. They'd just have to make allowances for the pack of television cameras that would follow them.