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A Trailing Kerry Has Been There, Won That

Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry has been here before.

Turning into the final eight weeks of the presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee faces doubts within his party and pundits increasingly skeptical of his chances against a resurgent President Bush, who seems to have momentum heading his way.

It is reminiscent of the Democratic race last winter, when Kerry was counted among the living dead and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was romping to the Democratic nomination -- or so it appeared.

But there is another contest that may be instructive, a campaign that political connoisseurs rate as one of the all-time classics: the 1996 U.S. Senate race between Kerry and Massachusetts’ popular Republican governor, William F. Weld.

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“A championship match between two world-class politicians,” said John Martilla, a longtime Kerry friend and campaign advisor. Counterparts in the Weld camp agree.

Although no election is like any other, the close-quarters combat of that Senate race offers clues to how the Democratic nominee operates under pressure, the steps he will take to win -- and suggests why Democrats, nervous as some may be, are counting on another Kerry comeback.

With his reelection bid lagging -- polls had Kerry trailing Weld in August by 8 percentage points -- the senator abruptly shed one of his top aides and replaced him with a pugnacious ad man who crafted a more partisan message emphasizing pocketbook issues. Kerry worked to overcome his stuffy reputation by revealing a more personal and humble side to voters. He dug into his wallet even though it meant ignoring the spending limits he originally agreed to abide by. And he fiercely defended his Vietnam War record when his credibility was called into question.

Each was identical to steps Kerry would take years later as he rallied from behind to capture the Democratic presidential nomination and, more recently, fend off charges he exaggerated his Vietnam combat record.

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“He’s at his best when he’s cornered,” said Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a longtime Kerry watcher. “Putting him in that fighting mode is key.”

The 1996 contest revealed a steel core within Kerry, observers say, along with an agile mind and tenacity that carried him through eight arduous debates. Afterward, Weld commemorated their exchanges with the gift of an actual kitchen sink -- reflecting everything the two had thrown at each other.

“He was on the ropes throughout a lot of the campaign,” Virginia Buckingham, Weld’s campaign manager, said of Kerry. “To the extent he felt it, it never showed.”

Many Republicans are less admiring of the senator’s willingness to break a spending agreement he reached with Weld in the summer of 1996.

The two, both advocates of campaign finance reform, sat down in the living room of Kerry’s Beacon Hill home and negotiated the $5-million spending cap, widely praised as a high-minded example of the way politics should be practiced. The notion was to elevate ideas over dollars and civility over the numbing exchange of advertised insults -- or so it was hoped.

By the time November rolled around, the agreement was shattered. Kerry was pouring tens of thousands of family dollars into the campaign, saturating the airwaves with ads promoting President Clinton’s support and tarring the moderate Weld as a right-wing extremist.

Kerry, who trailed Weld in fundraising when he agreed to the cap, said the governor was the first to breach their understanding. He pointed to a deal that Weld had made with his advertising strategists, lowering their commissions to free more money for TV air time.

Weld and others disputed the assertion. “I don’t believe that the level of advertising commissions was discussed in the context of the spending cap, any more than other campaign expenses,” the former governor said in an interview.

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To Rob Gray, Weld’s campaign spokesman, the details were immaterial. Kerry’s decision to blow through the spending ceiling was decisive, he said, and showed that Kerry would “do anything to win.”

To Democrats, ravenous to defeat Bush on Nov. 2, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Massachusetts had never seen a politician quite like William Weld.

For one thing, he was a successful Republican in a state where the GOP has long been little more than a niche party. Witty and outgoing, he was an eccentric relief after the famously uptight Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. (Never mind that Weld grew up on a Long Island estate, married a Roosevelt and lived in tony Cambridge.)

He earned his reputation as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney. But as governor, Weld impishly decorated his State House office with a portrait of James Michael Curly, the famously crooked “rascal king” of state politics who once campaigned from a jail cell. A fervent rock ‘n’ roll devotee, Weld might have been the highest-elected Deadhead in America.

He won the governorship in 1990, running to the left of his Democratic opponent on issues such as abortion, gun control and the environment. He cut taxes, privatized state services and overhauled welfare -- all while taunting the national Republican Party to be more open-minded on social matters. He won reelection in 1994 with 71% of the vote, and later said he would have run for president had he beaten Kerry in 1996.

As for Kerry, his sloping features and sober demeanor made him appear all the more cardboard when compared with the fun-loving Weld, who once leaped fully dressed into the Charles River to celebrate the signing of a clean-water bill. Kerry acknowledged as much in one of their debates, saying he was perhaps a bit too intense and earnest. (For his part, the rumpled Weld said he would never win a swimsuit contest against Kerry.)

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A greater problem was a sense that Kerry had done more to serve himself than the people he was supposed to represent. He was the sort of politician, Watanabe said, who was repeatedly elected but never embraced by Massachusetts voters.

Part of it was Kerry’s work in Congress.

The state’s senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy, was a national icon, renowned for his work on healthcare and economic issues. Kerry carved out his identity as an investigator, helping expose an international banking scandal and probing President Reagan’s arms-for-hostages deal.

Although the revelations won Kerry national headlines and appearances on Beltway talk shows, they didn’t have much resonance with folks back home. Indeed, many saw him as the sort of politician who only came around at election time. “A competent, capable Democrat,” Watanabe said. “But in Massachusetts, they’re a dime a dozen.”

As it turned out, the debates, a regimen Kerry initially resisted, turned the race around.

An incumbent normally would be loathe to share a stage with his rival, lest it elevate the opponent’s stature. But that wasn’t a consideration with Weld, a political giant in his own right. Besides, Kerry had little choice once the governor agreed to a schedule set by the state’s biggest newspapers and television stations.

The sessions, spread over several months, turned out to be a policy smorgasbord, dealing in all manner of state and federal issues in exhaustive detail. Both candidates “were brilliant,” said Buckingham, Weld’s campaign manager.

If there was a standout moment, it came in the first debate when the governor challenged Kerry, a death penalty opponent, to tell the mother of a slain police officer why her son’s killer should not be executed. (Kerry has since modified his position on capital punishment, saying he supports the death penalty in cases of terrorism.)

Glaring across the stage, Kerry responded, “I know something about killing ... I don’t like killing.” As a hush fell over historic Faneuil Hall, the decorated Vietnam veteran said the “scum” who kill police officers should spend the rest of their lives in prison. But, Kerry went on, “I don’t think a state honors life by turning around and sanctioning killing.”

The moment’s unscripted drama revealed a passionate side of Kerry that belied his icy image. On another occasion, the candidates were asked to discuss the most wrenching personal decision they faced. Kerry spoke not of Vietnam, as many expected, but divorcing his first wife and the concern he had for their daughters’ well-being. It was another surprising, heartfelt glimpse into the senator’s closely guarded interior.

But more than any one moment, it was the cumulative weight of Kerry’s performance and the televised hours spent in Massachusetts living rooms that helped forge the connection long absent from his relationship with voters.

“The things the Bush campaign is now trying to play up -- the arrogance, flip-flopping, ‘Hollywood John’ image -- he got a chance to rebut all that in a substantive way,” Buckingham said.

*

It also helped to be lucky.

In the closing stretch of the campaign, the Boston Globe published reports that Kerry had accepted free and cut-rate housing from lobbyists and local developers. But those ethical questions were immediately swept away when a Globe columnist questioned Kerry’s conduct in Vietnam, writing that he had “apparently” shot a wounded man during a skirmish that earned him a Silver Star.

Kerry had never made much of his Vietnam service, in contrast to the heavy emphasis his war record has gotten in his presidential bid. But when his veracity was challenged, the senator struck back aggressively. He angrily denounced the report as an attack on his honor and rallied several fellow veterans, who rushed to Massachusetts in his defense.

The timing, Buckingham said, was “devastating.” Weld had received multiple deferments as a young man and never served in Vietnam, making Kerry’s war record about the last thing he wanted to see in the headlines.

More broadly, Kerry benefited from the larger political climate, sharing the ballot with Clinton, who rolled up a 33-percentage-point victory in Massachusetts on his way to easy reelection.

Weld tried to focus the Senate campaign on crime, welfare and taxes. Kerry emphasized the environment, Medicare and, especially, education -- bread-and-butter to Democrats -- and argued that however centrist Weld might appear, a vote for him was in effect a vote for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his conservative allies. (It didn’t help Weld that he once referred to the polarizing Gingrich as his “ideological soul mate.”)

Kerry won his second term 52% to 45%. But the margin belied how close the race was for most of the campaign. Today, some minimize Kerry’s achievement. Stuart Stevens, who produced TV ads for Weld, points to the huge Democratic registration advantage in the state. “It’s a bit like the U.S. military saying their finest hour was the invasion of Grenada,” Stevens said. “It was hardly a fair fight.”

But Weld had been reelected in a landslide two years earlier, as the former governor himself noted, and started the campaign enjoying big advantages over Kerry in terms of accessibility, home-state accomplishments and likability. Nearly all of the experts -- and many of Kerry’s fellow Democrats -- believed the Senate seat was Weld’s to lose.

But Kerry was relentless, persisting long after many had written him off. He also was ruthless, abruptly firing a longtime advisor and replacing him with his current ad man, Robert Shrum, who immediately gave the campaign a more aggressive edge. One TV spot blended photos of Weld with Sens. Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, two Southerners who, ideologically, were light-years from the governor. The comparison might have been far-fetched, but it worked.

Finally, Kerry was shrewd, seizing upon the disagreement over ad commissions to breach a spending cap that might have forced his advertising off the TV airwaves at a critical point.

“The key to understanding Kerry is that he fights best from an underdog status,” said Lou DiNatale, a University of Massachusetts pollster who has followed Kerry’s career for years. “You can’t underestimate his ability to find the crease, the cutting issue, at the right moment and ride it all the way to election day.”


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