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Kerry’s resolution: Press on

Times Staff Writer

The SUV shuttling John F. Kerry through the frigid streets of the capital stops at a light. A burly young man pulls alongside but Kerry doesn’t notice. He is busy answering a reporter’s questions, reiterating a point from a speech he has just delivered about Afghanistan.

In the next lane, the man stuffed behind the wheel of the panel truck keeps waving and giving a thumbs up. Finally, Kerry sees him and lowers his window.

“I wish you were the president,” the admirer calls out.

“Hey, so do I,” Kerry replies with a slight wave and a nod.

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With that, the light changes and the Democratic senator from Massachusetts is whisked by his driver to the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

John Kerry is moving on. He declares it. He repeats it. He has an agenda filled with issues and speeches and legislation to prove it.

But planning his next steps and actually taking them can be hard amid the inescapable memories and what-ifs of the race that got away -- especially now, as Kerry’s friends, colleagues and rivals chase the prize across the frozen precincts of Iowa and New Hampshire.

So kind words from a truck driver are “very, very nice,” Kerry said, but they also are “a tough reminder that [the election] meant a lot to a lot of people and that they were disappointed.”

America can be an unkind place for a loser.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis wryly recalled one consoling talk he had on a flight after his 1988 presidential defeat as the Democratic nominee -- a conversation that ended with the voter earnestly extending his best wishes: “Good luck, Mr. Mondale,” he said.

Former Vice President Al Gore met a chilly reception after his defeat to Bush in 2000, particularly when he questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq. Gore, Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman once said, came to be viewed inside the Beltway “as an annoying and ungracious bore who should have the decency to get lost.”

But Washington and America also love a comeback story. Gore, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his climate change initiatives, has provided “a reinforcement of the fact that you can be down and then you’re up,” Kerry said.

“The important thing is, I didn’t feel waylaid by what happened,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t suddenly stop and go into a long mope. I started working again right away.”

Kerry lost the White House to President Bush in 2004, coming 118,000 votes short in Ohio of fulfilling a dream that some old acquaintances said he’d nurtured since his teens. In the three years since, he has faced an uneven slog toward a new incarnation -- a journey that the achingly contemplative senator concedes has no certain destination.

It was only reluctantly that Kerry earlier this year ended his flirtation with another presidential run. The finality of that decision will be punctuated within a few weeks when a new Democratic standard-bearer emerges.

Maybe the 2004 loss would be easier for Kerry to overcome if victory hadn’t been so tantalizingly close. Exit polls looked so good on election day that chief strategist Robert Shrum greeted his old friend as “Mr. President.”

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, some on Kerry’s staff said he put aside his own sorrow -- at least on the surface -- to console others. But during the months that followed, according to both a close friend and a former top advisor, the defeated candidate obsessed over what went wrong.

He was “a tortured soul about the loss,” said the friend, who requested anonymity. “I’m sure there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think about how things went down.”

Kerry denies that he was ever as distressed as some suggest. And other friends said they saw in him the same kind of resilience he’d demonstrated before, particularly after losing an early run for Congress.

“He is very practical, very matter-of-fact and very determined about where he needs to go from here” to extend his life in public service, said Washington lawyer Ivan A. Schlager, a longtime supporter.

But even now, no matter how hard he tries to focus on the future, Kerry occasionally drifts to thoughts of the past.

While driving to a speech at Johns Hopkins University, for example, Kerry began to talk about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He then segued into how that issue had played out in the 2004 debates.

That got him to complain that the debates were held too early for him to capitalize on his well-received performance, before he caught himself. “Let’s not go back,” he said. “It’s not what’s important.”

The next day in his office he bemoaned how little his campaign had spent to counter the well-financed attacks on his Vietnam War record.

“It’s hard to believe that 59,000 people weren’t affected by those lies,” said Kerry, referring to the number of voters who, if flipped to his side in Ohio, would have given him the presidency.

After his defeat, Kerry, who turned 64 this month, took some time to decompress. He was emotionally and physically spent from the grueling race.

In the summer of 2005, he jumped into a pickup with two of his closest aides for a cross-country road trip. He brought along his Harley-Davidson Road King and cruised beside the Snake River in Idaho.

The next year, Kerry bought a high-performance Corvette “on a fancy,” occasionally taking the black-on-black muscle car for a heart-pounding run into northern Virginia

But after logging just 1,400 miles, the Corvette now is for sale.

“It’s a hell of a car, but I just don’t have time to drive it,” Kerry said. “It’s not where my head’s at.”

His head, he said, is focused on the business of the United States Senate -- on ending the war in Iraq, improving benefits for military veterans and combating global warming.

“I haven’t stopped for an instant working on the issues that are important,” Kerry said from behind the desk of his Washington office as the first snow of winter fell outside. “I said, ‘Let’s get back to the things I fought for during the ’04 race.’ . . . It really sort of sustains you.”

When a reporter tagged along with Kerry for three days earlier this month, the senator maintained the brisk schedule of a man determined to remain in the game. He met with environmentalists about a climate change conference in Bali, pushed through a bill to continue small-business loans to military veterans, planned a fundraiser for a group plotting a more bipartisan foreign policy, and told an ESPN radio host that cable television needed to expand access to NFL games -- especially for his hometown Patriots.

Yet, even as he leaned forward, there could be reminders of what had been lost.

Kerry held a news conference with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to promote a bill that would increase the number of pharmacists writing prescriptions online, a change they agreed would save both money and lives.

Before the event began, the two unlikely allies met in an anteroom and gossiped about the presidential race.

“Do you miss it out there?” Gingrich asked.

“A little,” Kerry conceded. “But there are a lot of other things to be done.”

Often below the media radar these days, Kerry got a shot at a wider audience when he appeared on Don Imus’ radio show the next day. Imus had just returned to the airwaves, eight months after being fired for calling members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

There seemed to be more than a little empathy between the snarly entertainer, back from exile, and the politician, trying to make his way back into the public’s good graces.

“There is a whole new chance for life,” Kerry quipped on the air. “For you, for me, for everybody.”

There is a sense among Kerry loyalists that he does not receive enough credit for remaining at his post, toiling away. One former aide archly noted that while Kerry labored over the painstaking details of legislation and campaigned for fellow Democrats during the 2006 midterm election after his loss, “Gore went to England, gained 40 pounds and grew a beard.” (Kerry expressed nothing but admiration for the former vice president.)

By late 2006, Kerry’s supporters began to feel that his hard work was paying off with new political momentum. Although he lagged behind other Democrats in presidential polls, he gave every indication he wanted to run again.

He kept in touch with key contributors and consultants and expanded his network by campaigning doggedly for other Democrats in the midterm election. In all, Kerry doled out $14 million to scores of candidates and campaigned across 35 states as the Democrats pushed to take the House and Senate.

Then, just eight days before the election, he stumbled. In a throwaway remark at the start of a speech for a candidate with little chance of winning (California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides), Kerry told students at Pasadena City College that those who didn’t tend to their schoolwork would “get stuck in Iraq.”

Within a day, the White House and squads of Republicans slammed him for insulting the troops. They demanded an apology. The fallout became more painful when fellow Democrats -- including presidential candidate-in-waiting Hillary Rodham Clinton -- joined in.

Kerry’s staff hurriedly released prepared remarks showing that the Iraq comment had been intended as a joke about an ill-informed President Bush leading the country into war.

But even Kerry backers cringed. His words and initial refusal to say he was sorry seemed to confirm how he could occasionally be tone-deaf. Said one top 2004 aide: “It was a nail-in-the-coffin kind of moment.”

Told by party leaders that he’d become a distraction, Kerry canceled several appearances and quietly returned to Washington. He hunkered down in his Georgetown home for the final days of the race, as others soaked up the glory for midterm wins he also had helped secure.

Three months later, what seemed inevitable became official. In a 30-minute address to a nearly empty Senate chamber, Kerry said he would refocus his energy on finding a way out of Iraq. “I have concluded,” he said, “this isn’t the time for me to mount a presidential campaign.”

Today, Kerry acknowledges that life after 2004 has been “a big transition.” He recalls, in particular, the days four years ago when he had been given up for dead by the pundits but fought back to win the Iowa caucuses.

It was, he said, “a very exciting time, full of energy, full of hope. There is a piece of me, obviously, that would like to be out there. It’s hard to watch from the sidelines.”

Asked if his time on the national stage will come again, Kerry leaned back and took a breath.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know,” he said. “But I am an optimist who feels if you work hard, you’re capable and you stick at it, things can change.”

james.rainey@latimes.com


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