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Kerry’s Task Now Is to Win Enthusiasm of Democrats

Times Staff Writers

John F. Kerry returns to the presidential campaign trail today after nearly a week on the Idaho ski slopes -- tanned, rested and backed by a Democratic Party more energized and unified than it has been in years.

The senator from Massachusetts will pick up the endorsement of his fiercest primary opponent, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, at a campus rally this afternoon. Tonight, he will star at a Washington gala expected to raise more than $10 million, a record for Democrats under new campaign finance laws.

But even as he sets his sights on the fall contest against President Bush, Kerry faces a challenge within his own party, rallying Democrats who seem more passionate at this point about beating the Republican incumbent than backing the party’s apparent nominee-to-be.

“The early Kerry people are certainly enthusiastic about their guy,” said David Rosen, a Democratic fundraiser in Chicago. “But the rest of the folks, the folks coming over and jumping on the bandwagon, I don’t think they have this great enthusiasm yet for Kerry.”

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Rosen is convinced that will change as the senator becomes better known. But for now, Rosen and others say Kerry is still a mystery to many fellow Democrats, who know little beyond the fact that he once served in Vietnam and won a succession of primaries to clinch the party’s nomination in record time.

And while Democratic leaders praised Kerry as both a candidate and potential president, notwithstanding the rough patch his campaign hit before vacation, they tacitly acknowledged that he has yet to forge a personal connection with many of the party faithful

“I think people in the Democratic Party like, admire and love him because he’s a Democrat,” said Mark Brewer, the state party chairman in Michigan.

Aides to Kerry disputed the notion that his support was largely a function of Democratic contempt for Bush. “That’s a fallacy,” said Tad Devine, a senior campaign strategist. “That distrust and dislike of Bush exists, but John Kerry has impressed the Democratic Party.”

At the same time, Devine acknowledged that “just being against Bush is not going to be powerful enough to win the election. It’s very important that people feel strongly about John Kerry.”

Building that bond will be a test for the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, even as he begins reaching beyond the party’s base to swing voters driven less by ideology than by a candidate’s values and personal qualities.

On Wednesday, Kerry wrapped up a six-day ski vacation in Ketchum, Idaho, flying home to Washington to resume his campaign with a speech this morning to a national gathering of newspaper publishers.

Kerry aides said they plan to use the coming months to flesh out the public portrait of the senator by having him do a series of town hall meetings in key states. Those kinds of appearances, in which the candidate faces extensive questioning from unrehearsed audiences, worked effectively in the Democratic primaries.

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Strategists said they’ll be ready to respond aggressively to criticisms from the Bush campaign, while Kerry himself will emphasize bread-and-butter issues, including job growth and healthcare. The goal is to showcase the Democratic candidate addressing tangible problems facing average Americans.

The focus on a general election agenda is a luxury Kerry can afford.

Unlike past nominees who have struggled with dissent within the typically fractious Democratic Party all the way to their summer nominating conventions, Kerry has been endorsed by nearly all of his onetime rivals. Several will be on hand for tonight’s unity dinner in Washington, along with former Presidents Clinton and Carter and former Vice President Al Gore.

A number of aides to Kerry’s fallen rivals have been hired to work for the nominee-apparent, in both his campaign and at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Fundraisers like Rosen, who was Midwest finance director for retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, have volunteered to help Kerry reach his goal of raising $80 million or more between now and the Democratic National Convention in late July. (Bush has already collected more than $160 million.)

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At the grass-roots level, Democratic leaders around the country say their offices have been flooded with phone calls from people wanting to volunteer. In Iowa, party chairman Gordon Fischer said he recently attended an organizational meeting in rural Jackson County that drew nearly 300 people, or triple the number expected. “People desperately want to beat Bush,” Fischer said.

But that does not necessarily mean people are excited about Kerry.

One Washington lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser who has a ticket for tonight’s dinner is unsure whether he will go.

“My sense is that Democrats here want to raise money, want to be helpful just because they’re tired of the Bush people and they can’t stand him,” said the lobbyist, who did not want to be identified to preserve his relations with Kerry and his team. “I don’t think John Kerry has a huge wellspring of good feeling among Democrats in Washington.”

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Dean, in typical fashion, was blunter still. “I don’t want to give any of you a heart attack,” he said in an online posting Monday, acknowledging that not all his supporters would be thrilled with his endorsement of the senator.

While stating that he and Kerry share similar views on expanding access to healthcare and protecting the environment, Dean conceded that some of his followers would have a hard time transferring their loyalties to a candidate he once castigated.

Several Dean supporters who have come to support Kerry said they did so grudgingly.

“I think it’s about party unity and being supportive of the nominee,” said Eugene Hedlund, a mortgage broker in Riverside, Calif., who collected more than $10,000 for Kerry in the last week from contributors to his pro-Dean website, truthand hope.org.

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“I would love to say I can’t wait for John Kerry to be president

Kerry suffered through two of the worst weeks of his campaign just before heading to the ski slopes, a result of several verbal gaffes, including one that put him on both sides of a congressional vote on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That comment surfaced within 24 hours in a Bush campaign spot, demonstrating a speed and negative force that took many Democrats aback.

“There’s a difference between knowing that you’re going against a formidable political machine that has raised a record sum of money

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Still, most Democrats professed not to worry about the overall direction of the campaign, noting how quickly this week’s renewed focus on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had shifted the dynamic and thrown Bush on the defensive. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs,” said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

But Kerry will get better as a national candidate, Torres said, and when he does, Democrats’ commitment to him will grow even stronger.

“He’s just getting his sea legs, and that takes time,” Torres said. “But they’ll come.”

Barabak reported from San Francisco, Gold from Washington.

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