Kerry’s Strategy Accents Positive

Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry’s strategy for the Democratic National Convention rests on a bet that voters are ready to change direction and need more to be reassured about his virtues than persuaded that President Bush has failed, sources familiar with campaign strategy say.

With that in mind, Democrats plan to focus more on boosting Kerry than bashing Bush at the convention that convenes Monday in Boston. And they are framing a message that, while also trying to spotlight Kerry’s policy agenda, places the greatest emphasis on telling his personal story.

“Who he is, where he comes from and what he believes: That is the most important thing to convey,” said Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor.

Senior Kerry aides said the Democrats would try above all to persuade voters that the Massachusetts senator could defend the country as commander in chief and held strong beliefs that had guided his decisions.


“Seventy-five percent of this week is that he will keep you safe, and 25% is that he is a man of conviction,” one senior Kerry aide said.

This strategy may reflect equal measures of confidence and concern. On one hand, it embodies the widespread belief in Democratic circles that at least a narrow majority of Americans are disillusioned with Bush’s performance and ready to replace him -- if Kerry can convince them he’s a good alternative.

“The country does not need to be won over to the fact that it wants change,” said veteran Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. “It needs to be won over to the fact that Kerry is the person who can lead that change.”

On the other hand, the decision to illuminate Kerry’s life story implicitly acknowledges that he still faces questions and doubts from many voters.

One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking viewed the apparent decision to play down Bush and emphasize Kerry more as a sign of weakness than strength.

“Kerry is weak and they have to deal with that weakness,” said the strategist. “Part of that is the Bush campaign ads [attacking Kerry], but that ain’t most of it. It is that people are looking at him and saying, ‘Massachusetts liberal, flip-flopper.’ So I think they are sitting there saying ‘We have a real problem and we have to deal with it.’ ”

Kerry aides dispute that characterization, but it’s probably no coincidence that the commander-in-chief-and-conviction message rebuts two central lines of criticism from Bush’s campaign, which has poured tens of millions of dollars into ads portraying Kerry as soft on defense and irresolute.

The quadrennial political conventions long ago lost their historic function of actually selecting the parties’ presidential nominees, ceding that role to voters in primaries and caucuses. And the share of Americans who watch the proceedings on television has shrunk roughly in half over the last quarter-century as the broadcast networks have reduced air time.

Although the cable networks promise gavel-to-gavel coverage in Boston and New York, where the GOP will convene, the broadcast networks will air three hours from each convention -- the least ever.

Yet almost all analysts agree that the conventions remain one of the critical events in the presidential campaign, especially for candidates like Kerry seeking to unseat an incumbent.

The convention’s effect is magnified beyond its immediate television audience because it dominates news coverage, in print and on television, for nearly a week. As a result, experts agree, the convention traditionally has represented the best opportunity for a challenger to fill in his image for voters who have developed only fleeting impressions of him from snippets of news or television ads.

With events in Iraq overshadowing the campaign for much of this year, surveys and focus groups consistently show that many Americans still don’t know much about Kerry. A Times Poll last week found that one-third of registered voters said they didn’t know Kerry well enough to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush.

And some Democrats worry that many voters have received much of their limited information on Kerry from Bush TV commercials portraying him as a flip-flopper who shifts his position for political advantage.

“Voters feel comfortable that Kerry is smart and experienced, but when you start going beyond that, the only thing that emerges is that he has a personality that seems distant, and some sense he straddles on issues,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “Many of the positive elements of his story are just not known.”

Most experts agree with Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, that the Democratic convention represents “Kerry’s last best chance” to tell that story on his own terms.

“If Kerry does not convey a story with swing voters that ... provides a partial shield for what is going to be an onslaught by Bush ... it gives Bush an opportunity to complete the job of defining Kerry and chipping away at his support,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.

Inevitably, with vitriolic Bush critics such as former Vice President Al Gore, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass) receiving speaking slots at the convention, Democrats will spend part of their time making their case against the president. But a wide array of Kerry strategists said the convention would devote less time and energy than might be expected to framing an argument against Bush, especially during in the precious prime-time hours covered by the broadcast networks.

In part, insiders say, that decision reflects a belief that Democratic criticism is less likely to affect public perceptions of Bush than real-world events such as the developments in Iraq or the economy.

A bigger factor may be the confidence in Democratic circles that most Americans are already willing to change direction without a hard sell from Kerry.

Polls consistently show Bush’s approval rating hovering at 50% or less, with most voters saying the nation is on the wrong track; in recent surveys both by The Times and Greenberg, a solid majority also said they wanted to move in a different policy direction than the one Bush had set out.

In campaign appearances in recent weeks, Kerry has generally tempered earlier harsh attacks on Bush and frequently sought to project a statesmanlike, less partisan image, especially on national security issues. Advisors are promising the same tone at the convention.

“We don’t need to be talking to people in a way that we typically would have under a normal scenario, where we were trailing the incumbent going into the convention,” Devine said.

“We are in a place where people have said ... they want the country to go in a different direction and the question is, ‘Are they comfortable with Kerry leading them in that direction?’ ”

To answer that question, Democrats hope this week to increase awareness of Kerry’s domestic and foreign agenda -- though less by impressing people on the details of his plan than by convincing them he has a plan. Their principal goal is to flesh out Kerry for the many voters who now hold only vague or negative impressions of him, and to present his agenda as the culmination of a lifetime devoted to the value of public service.

In that way, the strategy is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s effort at the 1992 convention to present himself as both a product and defender of the middle class, presenting an agenda to provide others the same opportunities that allowed him to rise to prominence “from a place called Hope.”

Among those enlisted for prominent speaking roles in Kerry’s effort will be daughters Alexandra and Vanessa, stepson Chris Heinz and the senator’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Colleagues such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) will also testify to Kerry’s work in Congress.

The campaign appears determined to shine the brightest spotlight on the candidate’s service as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam. It has provided speaking slots to crewmates on the Swift boats he commanded in Vietnam, as well as to Jim Rassmann, a Green Beret whose life Kerry saved in combat, and Max Cleland, a disabled Vietnam veteran and former Democratic senator from Georgia.

Some Democratic strategists worry that Kerry must better explain how his Vietnam experience shapes his approach to problems today. But the campaign sees the highlighting of his time under fire as a critical means to advance his national security message, which is at the top of its priority list this week.

Tilting the convention focus more toward Kerry’s personal story than Bush’s record presents two risks for the Democrats. One is that the party may wish this fall that it had provided voters a stronger argument for change if Bush effectively makes a case for continuity at the Republican National Convention beginning in late August.

The second risk may be unavoidable: the emphasis on humanizing Kerry will force him to excel at a task that has always challenged him: connecting personally with voters. And for all the praise Kerry is certain to receive from others on the podium, that challenge ultimately will fall to him alone in his acceptance speech Thursday.

“The acceptance speech is the ballgame,” said Democratic media consultant Mandy Grunwald, who helped plan the 1992 convention for Clinton. “That is the moment voters tune in and make a judgment.”