Kerry Makes His Closing Arguments

Times Staff Writer

Faced with dwindling days to make his case, Sen. John F. Kerry has been urgently pressing two arguments as he sprints around the country: that he’s both an affable figure and that he would be a tougher leader than the incumbent.

In the last week, the Democratic presidential candidate has issued a series of hard-edged closing arguments, hammering President Bush for the way he has handled many issues, including the Iraq war and the flu vaccine shortage.

But Kerry, who has struggled to show his more personal side, also has been working to shuck the image of an aloof senator, hoping that voters would see him simply as a regular guy.


In between speeches, the candidate has taken pains to present himself in more casual, humanizing settings: kicking around a soccer ball in a Wisconsin park with 12-year-old girls, drinking a beer as he watched a Red Sox game and hunting geese in rural Ohio.

But some political experts said that Kerry’s dual efforts threatened to water down his message at the very time he needed to be enunciating a sharp, clear vision.

“There’s an old saying that ‘less is more’ in political communication,” said Democratic strategist David Doak. “If you try to communicate too many things, you end up communicating nothing.”

But aides said the campaign needed to fight on two fronts -- the personal and the substantive -- if they were to win. Polls have shown that while the majority of Americans agreed with Kerry’s criticisms of the Bush administration, those same voters were not necessarily sold on the Massachusetts senator as an alternative.

In a recent New York Times-CBS News survey, six out of 10 respondents said they believed that Bush’s tax cuts benefited the rich and that the administration did a poor job of managing the Iraq war. But a majority also viewed Kerry as untrustworthy and irresolute.

Kerry’s advisors acknowledged that the senator had not yet won over all the voters who were disenchanted with Bush, but said they believed that would change.


“We’re basically asking them to fire the president of the United States, and that’s hard for many voters to do,” said senior advisor Mike McCurry.

“They are more and more convinced that President Bush does not deserve to be reelected, and they are trying to get to the point where they can see and embrace John Kerry as their next president,” he added. “We have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing here, and we think that those folks are going to come over to Kerry eventually.”

Aides maintained publicly that support for Kerry was growing and insisted many current polls under-represented the number of Democrats who were planning to vote. But privately, they were troubled by a trend in public surveys that indicated Bush was gaining a slight lead after the presidential debates, sources said.

“They don’t know what to think at this point,” said one Democrat familiar with internal discussions, adding that attitudes vary from “optimism to ‘Oh gosh, it’s lost.’ ”

Even Kerry himself admitted people were still sizing him up.

“I know as you look at me you’re trying to look right through me and say, ‘Can I trust this fellow?’ ” he told senior citizens at a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Oct.18.

The senator spent the last week trying to reassure voters of his presidential credentials and his personal qualities while taking swipes at his Republican rival.

In a series of speeches, he accused Bush of having a “schoolyard” attitude about foreign affairs and a “Twilight Zonish” indifference to domestic matters.

“The problem is this president either just doesn’t understand what’s happened to our economy and to the average family in America, or he understands and he just doesn’t care,” he told an audience in Milwaukee.

Kerry disputed Republican criticism that he would be a weak commander in chief, promising repeatedly that he would never cede the country’s security to any other nation or institution. After scaling back his frequent references earlier in his campaign to his service in Vietnam -- a theme some Democrats said Kerry had overplayed -- the candidate revived those allusions last week.

“I defended our country as a young man, I’ve bled for our country as young man, and I will defend our country as president of the United States of America,” he told audiences.

Meanwhile, his campaign provided an array of photo-ops to soften his image: Kerry shopping for pumpkins at a roadside stand in Ohio; appearing with Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed at the World Trade Center; and embracing Dana Reeve, the widow of actor and activist Christopher Reeve.

The Democrat also sought to speak more personally about his own faith -- a theme he stressed in a speech Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- hoping to give voters a better sense of his character and values.

During an address last week at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, the senator quoted a verse from “Amazing Grace” as he noted that the election was just days away.

“Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come,” Kerry said, prompting calls of “Amen” and applause from the congregation. “ ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”

More often, though, he tried to connect with audiences through humor, ad-libbing one-liners that drew appreciative laughter from supporters.

In Waterloo, Iowa, a young girl presented the candidate with a handmade card that read, “Kerry rools.” He beamed as he held it for 1,000-plus supporters jammed into an airplane hangar for a nighttime rally.

“Thank you for getting the message,” Kerry told her. “And I hope a lot more Americans are going to get it -- quick.”