For Kerry, It Wasn't Supposed to Be This Hard

Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry looked weary.

The Democratic presidential candidate had just wrapped up another 12-hour day campaigning in this rain-drenched Midwestern state. Up ahead: a late-night flight to Boston, then another four-day leg through New Hampshire.

As his minivan trundled through the soggy night, the Massachusetts senator finished an interview and leaned back in his seat with a sigh. "I'm very happy to stop talking for a while," Kerry said, as an aide passed him a bottle of water.

It wasn't supposed to be this hard. When Kerry initially flirted with a presidential run at the beginning of the year, the four-term senator and Vietnam War veteran was viewed as a formidable candidate who would catapult to the top of a crowded pack.

But that was before Howard Dean. As public opposition to the war in Iraq grew, the former Vermont governor surged in fund-raising and opinion polls with his strong denunciations of President Bush. Kerry mostly has been on the defensive, forced to explain why he voted to give Bush authorization to use force against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Now, Kerry is suddenly waging an aggressive campaign. He's pleading with voters to examine his record even as he tosses sharp elbows at Dean. In New Hampshire -- which neighbors their home states -- recent polls show him as much as 20 points behind the onetime unknown governor.

"I think he took New Hampshire a little bit for granted and left the door open for other candidates," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which does political polling. "His vote on the war put him on the wrong side of what he would think would be his natural supporters."

Slow to take on Dean over the summer, Kerry is attempting to tap into the anger at the current administration that his opponent harnessed early in his campaign. In speeches at local diners and community centers, he rails about influential industries like pharmaceutical companies and "Big Oil" that he says have co-opted federal policy at the expense of the public interest.

"We need a president who's prepared to get fighting mad about these questions of what's fair in America," he told about 60 people gathered for a lunchtime meeting Monday at RJ Boars, a barbecue restaurant in Clinton, Iowa.

But the question remains: Is there room for both Kerry and Dean to represent the angry Democratic voter?

Dean "struck gold by having the theme first," said Bruce Nesmith, chairman of the political science department at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. "If others come along and say, 'I'm angry, too,' that doesn't have the same resonance."

For Kerry's strategy to work, he'll have to persuade voters like Pierrette Wolfe, a law office manager who listened intently as he made his pitch at the Clinton restaurant. Wolfe said she's impressed by Kerry's military record and Senate credentials, but she also has her eye on Dean.

"I started out thinking I would be a Kerry supporter, but his campaign kind of went nowhere for a long time," said Wolfe, 61. "I like Howard Dean's early resistance to the war, and I think he has brought the rest of the Democratic field to oppose it. That's my debate."

Kerry is repeatedly pressed on the campaign trail to explain his stance on Iraq. He tells audiences that he voted to give Bush authorization to use force because the president promised to bring together a multinational coalition and go to war as a last resort.

Kerry and his advisors contend that he has been making the case about the Bush administration's errors all along. He thinks he can still win over Democrats like Wolfe.

"People are waking up now and saying who can really be president and who can win," he said. "I think it would be very dangerous for the party to have a nominee who has no foreign policy [experience] at all."

Despite his outward confidence, he frets about Dean.

"Did you say you bumped into people today who said they were still torn [between me and Dean]?" he asked a reporter at the end of the interview. "But you must have also talked to people who said, 'I'm with you 100%?' "

This week, he sought to capitalize on Dean's remark that he wants to appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" -- a comment Kerry called offensive and divisive. Although Dean apologized for the reference Wednesday, Kerry isn't letting him off the hook. He noted that Dean made the flag comment during an interview about his stance on gun control.

"The governor moves faster, in more different directions, tells more different stories than anybody I've ever met in politics," Kerry said during a stop in Manchester, N.H., last week. "This is not a straight talker."

Kerry's consistent jabs at Dean represent a shift from earlier this year, when his staff squabbled about how much to go after the fast-rising former Vermont governor.

In September, his communications director, Chris Lehane, quit, reportedly out of frustration that Kerry wasn't being more aggressive. Since then, there have been persistent reports of division over strategy within the campaign.

Now Dean is squarely in Kerry's sight. With the former Vermont governor strongly hinting that he will opt out of public financing to be more competitive with Bush, Kerry--who has raised $20 million to Dean's $25 million as of Sept. 30 -- has indicated he would follow suit.

The Massachusetts senator has been hamstrung in building momentum for his candidacy in part by the nature of his job. While Dean is out of office and has time to campaign nonstop, Kerry has had to return to Washington, D.C., for Senate votes.

On a recent drizzly morning, he visited a riverside park in Davenport, Iowa, to talk about his plan to clean up the country's waterways.

The event, which was originally scheduled when the fall foliage was in its full glory, had to be delayed because of a Senate vote.

On this day, Kerry picked his way along the muddy banks with several environmentalists, peering out at the slate gray Mississippi River.

A little later, he told about 40 people gathered inside the park's brick clubhouse that he would crack down on polluting industries that he contends have persuaded Bush to loosen environmental regulations. Then, in an interview with local reporters, he took a swing at the president's handling of the war in Iraq.

"I believe that arrogance is leaving our soldiers at greater risk than they need to be," Kerry said. "I think the misjudgments of this administration are piling one on top of another."

Tagged with a reputation for being aloof and long-winded, Kerry is trying to enhance his credentials with a charm offensive, stopping to clasp hands and make small talk with voters every time he enters a room.

Mary Williams, 56, beamed after meeting him.

"Some people like to elect outsiders, but you know what?" said Williams, a dental hygienist who lives in Davenport. "We don't have that much time to bring people up to speed, and I think he's up to speed."

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