Warm Iowa Embrace May Help Kerry Thaw N.H. Chill
Debbie Ayers, bundled against the bitter cold, stood beneath an awning in the heart of this ski town’s business district a few days ago and listed the people still in contention for her vote in New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 Democratic primary.
She liked Howard Dean, the former governor next door, because of his passion but was wary of his lack of experience. Wesley K. Clark, the retired general from Arkansas, was “interesting,” but “I’m cautious about a guy who’s never been elected to anything.” She was intrigued by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, whom she heard speak in a coffee shop here, but wasn’t ready to commit to him either.
How about John F. Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts?
“Kerry’s the old school; he’s passe,” Ayers, a 59-year-old art teacher, said dismissively. “He still looks like his rich roots.”
New Hampshire was supposed to be his easy sale, the one he could count on, like a kid persuading a neighbor to buy school fundraiser candy. Instead, Kerry is foundering here, dropping eight points since Christmas in the American Research Group’s tracking poll. He’s now in third place behind a surging Clark and frontrunner Dean.
So it’s no small irony that Kerry, hoping to get back in the good graces of his New Hampshire neighbors, is counting on support from Iowans who, from a distance of 1,000 miles, perceive him as a national figure rather than the politician next door.
“I think John Kerry has the strongest legislative background and the best military background,” Pat Larson, a retired insurance underwriter from Bettendorf, Iowa, said Friday as she lunched with a friend while waiting for a Kerry appearance in Davenport.
“I think he can really take it to Bush. I liked his closing statement in the debate on Sunday -- ‘Bring it on!’ ”
Another diner, Vietnam veteran and small-business owner Michael Mahler of Le Claire, was similarly drawn. “He’s got leadership qualities,” Mahler said. “He’s got a great handle on the issues.”
Kerry aides agree that the senator has to do well in Iowa at the caucuses on Jan. 19, but no one is willing to say how well. With recent polls showing Kerry gaining there, a second-place finish is possible. Some say it’s critical.
“Obviously Sen. Kerry is hoping that somehow his New Hampshire candidacy can get reborn in Iowa,” Geoff Garin, Clark’s pollster, said this week in a conference call with reporters. “I don’t think a respectable third gets him there.”
How difficult a chore Kerry faces was illustrated Friday.
He was endorsed by Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller but ended the day overshadowed by Dean, who picked up the sought-after backing of Iowa’s popular Sen. Tom Harkin.
Still, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Kerry has maintained an air of optimism and tells supporters he is picking up “energy” in Iowa.
“I’m going to come out of Iowa and show you folks that this is a campaign worth listening to,” he told New Hampshire business leaders this week.
Kerry was also confident before a crowd of more than 200 firefighters and other supporters who converged on a Dover, N.H., Veterans of Foreign Wars hall for chili and politics -- Kerry’s version of the town hall meeting.
“Don’t worry about the polls,” he said after someone questioned his campaign’s health, then added in a clear reference to Dean, “I think people are comparative shopping right now, and I think in the case of some candidates there might be some buyer’s remorse.”
Regaining traction in New Hampshire, though, could prove difficult. Voters routinely flit between candidates over policy positions -- the war in Iraq, which Kerry voted for, figures prominently in this race -- and concerns about electability.
But when voters turn their back on Kerry, it can be more personal, like a marriage gone sour.
Garin said the Clark campaign asked New Hampshire voters a few weeks ago to volunteer their impressions of Kerry, and negatives slightly outweighed positives.
“They are not talking about whether he is too liberal or anything else, they talk about personality ... arrogant, short-tempered, changing his mind too much, wishy-washy,” Garin said. “As those types of perceptions become established, those are harder things to change than your issue positioning.”
Some of the resentment stems from regional rivalries, augmented by class divisions. Housing prices have moved out of reach for many residents in southern New Hampshire because of more well-to-do buyers moving in from Boston. And for many, Kerry embodies old Boston money.
He has tried to tie his campaign to the hopes and welfare of workers. He’s ridden a motorcycle to some events, and on Thursday proudly received an embroidered firefighter jacket. But some voters aren’t buying it.
“It takes more than a motorcycle to make you a man of the people,” said retired educator Dana M. Dunnan, who moved his allegiance from Kerry to Dean.
To many New Hampshire ears, Kerry sounds like elite Boston no matter how populist the message.
“He doesn’t just talk to you, he ta-awks to you,” said Jerry Sneirson, 64, a retired airline pilot from Durham, who also lost interest in Kerry and now backs Dean. “Whenever he opens his mouth, all you hear is Brahmin.”
Kerry, who first rose to the national stage as an activist against the Vietnam War, in which he fought, disappointed supporters when he voted last year for the war in Iraq. They saw it, at best, as an opportunistic refutation of his own history.
Part of Kerry’s problem also is his demeanor.
On Wednesday, Kerry delivered a 40-minute speech to business leaders in Bedford, N.H., on his Worker’s Bill of Rights, in which he sounded like a diffident political science professor, dispassionate in his delivery.
The next day, he led a discussion with six working-class people in Concord and seemed caring but at times inattentive. He twice asked how many people worked at a local belt-making factory and, moments after Joe Casey, an electrician union business agent, told him he had four children, Kerry asked him how many children he had.
Yet in other settings, Kerry has been relaxed. He comes across like an engaging talk-show host accenting policy talks with jokes -- one New Hampshire night was so cold, he said, people might have to get close to “Dick Cheney for warmth.”
Thursday night, Kerry brought a crowd of 500 supporters to its feet with an exhortation to “stand with me” against everything from “corporate cheats who take the jobs overseas” to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft. “Stand with me,” Kerry shouted over a crescendo of applause, “and we will change America and reclaim our democracy.”
It was an invigorating moment, like a football coach revving up his team at halftime. Then Kerry left for a late-night drive to Boston to catch a morning flight to Iowa and, he hopes, political resuscitation.
Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report from Des Moines.