Back to the Front

It was pitch dark and zero degrees outside, and the driver had dimmed the fluorescent lights in Sen. John Kerry's "Real Deal Express" for the long ride across New Hampshire from Claremont back to Manchester. The campaign day had been a good one, as, indeed, they all had been since Iowa, where months of dogged work--patiently answering hour upon hour of questions from voters in town halls, learning to speak in the crisp cadences of the campaign trail, not in Senatese--had paid off in a come-from-behind victory. But the gloom in the bus reflected Kerry's mood, which was subdued, almost grim, as he jabbed at the soggy remnants of a salad and contemplated what could be a grueling, lengthy contest for the Democratic nomination. A year ago the pundits had christened him the front runner; instead, Howard Dean had blogged his way into the role. Then, in Iowa, Dean had collapsed, and added to his woes with a primal scream of a concession speech. Now, post Iowa, Kerry had roared to the lead in the New Hampshire tracking polls, but the results were by no means set. Dr. Dean, performing emergency surgery on his campaign, calmed his delivery and advertised his unassuming wife in an effort to show that he was a regular fellow; Sen. John Edwards, a trial lawyer, addressed the jury of voters in his earnest, po' boy style. Anything could happen, Kerry said; he had to work--harder. "I don't believe in numbers," he said. In Vietnam, many years ago, he had learned to live with the fact that an invisible sharpshooter on a riverbank could kill him in an instant. "I learned to tough it out," he said.

Can John Kerry "tough it out" all the way to the White House? Can he do it against a political machine--Bush-Cheney '04--as wealthy, powerful and remorseless as any in modern history? It is an urgent question to Democrats, who yearn to unseat President George W. Bush with an apocalyptic fervor that makes one word--"electability"--the defining idea in the race. "I've never seen anything like it," said Jeanne Shaheen, former governor of New Hampshire. "Voters care more about electability than anything else." Twenty years ago Shaheen led Gary Hart's insurgency in the state against Walter Mondale's party establishment. This time she's backing Kerry--who was endorsed last week by Mondale. In 1984, the driving issue was the direction of the party. This time the argument has less to do with philosophy or programs (most of the candidates substantially agree on most of the issues) than with the hard-eyed calculus of the Electoral College. Even Deaniacs couch their case in electability terms, contending that only their hero can appeal to the young and estranged.

For now, at least, Kerry has emerged as the new answer to the question: "Who can beat Bush?" In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, he has vaulted into a national lead among Democrats, with 30 percent, far ahead of a low-teens pack of Edwards, Dean and former general Wes Clark. Faith in Kerry, temporary as it may be, seems well placed: he's the only contender to best the president (by a 49-46 percent margin) in a general-election test matchup. The Massachusetts senator has the highest "favorability" rating, with the personable Edwards, of North Carolina, rising fast--and Dean losing some altitude in the aftermath of his Munch moment. The Democrats can take heart from indications of Bush's weakness on domestic issues. On the three concerns uppermost in their minds--jobs, health care and education--the voters said a "Democratic president" would do a better job than the incumbent Republican one.

The White House, to be sure, has erected the defense of its Electoral College majority with military precision. In his State of the Union speech last week, the president laid out his basic, tripartite strategy: meet concerns about health care and education with specific, market-oriented proposals; feed the Red State cultural base with a stirring defense of marriage, sexual abstinence and "faith based" welfare programs; dare the Democrats to engage him on what polls show is his strength, the war on terror. "It is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers," he said. "The terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States, and war is what they got." America, he added, "will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people."

Sometimes precision targeting goes awry, or the target moves. Bush's speech was aimed at Dean, who never served in the military and who rose to prominence as an ardent foe of the Iraq war. A Bush-Kerry fire fight on military matters could be a closer-run thing. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Kerry was patrolling rivers in the Mekong Delta while Dean was skiing in Colorado on a 1-Y deferment, and Bush was in the Air National Guard, protecting the skies over Houston (when he wasn't slipping away to work on a Senate race in Alabama). Kerry contends he could neutralize Republican soft-on-terror attacks. "I not only welcome that fight, I relish it," he declares. "If that's what they want, then I say to them, 'Bring it on!' "

Kerry wouldn't be in the electability game at all had he not been able to revive his moribund campaign this winter. After 9/11/01, his experience in foreign policy, his liberal legislative record, his military background and his personal wealth (from his wife Teresa's Heinz fortune) made him the favorite of Washington wise guys. But Kerry's campaign was inert for most of last year, anesthetized by his lordly demeanor, verbose style and aura of entitlement. He was, moreover, a supporter of the 2002 resolution that authorized war in Iraq--a vote he has had trouble defending in a concise and convincing way until recently. To make matters worse, Kerry was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and had to drop off the trail last summer. When he came back in the fall, his lean frame had turned gaunt, and he lacked the boyish energy he had managed to preserve through his 50s. "I had no choice, but I probably came back too soon," he said. "I wasn't up to speed."

Convalescing on the run, Kerry made two critical tactical moves. One was to shake up his staff. Campaign manager Jim Jordan, a shrewd, Washington-based inside player who had laid organizational groundwork, was let go. He had clashed repeatedly with the more media-oriented "Boston crowd," led by the Kennedy clan and its professional consultant outriders. Other key members of that group were Kerry's brother, Cameron, and his wife, Teresa--who blamed Jordan for the campaign's lack of evident progress. Jordan was replaced by Mary Beth Cahill, Sen. Ted Kennedy's respected former chief of staff. "It's run smoothly since," said one insider.

The other audible call was to focus the campaign on Iowa, where Kerry had been well received early on. Most of the campaign's staff and resources were sent west, and Kerry won the backing--first private and then public--of Christy Vilsack, the popular wife of the Democratic governor. The notion was that Kerry could use momentum gained in Iowa to slingshot into New Hampshire, where Shaheen, a legendarily effective organizer, would be ready to switch on her machine. It worked.

So is the result a truly "electable" candidate in the fall, or merely one who learned--not a moment too soon--how to compete in the early innings of the Democratic race? There is, for one, the matter of Kerry's public persona: he can seem aloof, condescending and soporific. A close friend admonished him to "quit looking to see who else is in the room when you shake hands with someone." Stories are legion of Kerry's forgetting names of local figures he's met several, even dozens, of times. As a senator for 20 years, and with a bright mind sensitive to nuances in all things, Kerry tends to explain things at great length--as much, it seems, to show off his knowledge as to communicate. "Just because someone asks you the time you don't have to explain how to build a watch," one good friend told him. He often exudes a sense of entitlement to power. In 2002, Kerry told NEWSWEEK, in effect, that his time had come. "Everybody in my class already has run for president," he said--meaning that the other Democrats elected to the Senate in 1984 had done so. The implication: I have been patient. I've schooled myself. Now everyone should admit that I'm The Man for the job and the moment.

The antidote for all this--to the extent that there is one--was Iowa. There, Kerry worked on being a humble listener in hour after hour of town halls. The senator with 20 years' seniority did his best to unlearn legislative language. And he worked on dealing with the person in front of him, not the ambition ahead of him. "That was a fair criticism at one point," he admits. "But you live and learn, and I think I am doing better at it."

He is, in part by campaigning with those who represent the emotional wellspring of his campaign: Vietnam veterans. Starting a few weeks ago, Kerry began featuring men he had led as skipper of one of two Swift Boats along the coast of 'Nam. They testify to his courage, leadership and humor, and draw other veterans to the events. In Iowa, Kerry unveiled another such ally--a Green Beret named Jim Rassman, whom Kerry had fished out of a river under fire. Kerry won a Bronze Star with a "V" for valor as a result. "I'm a Republican," Rassman told a cheering crowd in Des Moines last week, "but I'm switching registration to vote for John Kerry." The two men embraced--a gesture Kerry repeats with other vets. "The more the guy loosens up the better," said an adviser. "It's good for him as a candidate and person."

Does Kerry--reared in wealth, connections and European boarding schools--understand the gritty realities of American life? Not enough to be the most electable candidate, argues Edwards. "I am more electable because I know what it's like to grow up in a working-class family," he told NEWSWEEK. Kerry admits he never had to deny himself any but the most lavish of material wants. But that's irrelevant to electability, he said. "It's not the circumstances you come from; it's the values you fight for," Kerry said. "If working-class roots were the standard, we would have been deprived of the leadership of great presidents--Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, to name three."

Is Kerry too much of a Washington insider to be electable? That's Dean's argument, vehemently expressed on the trail for a year and a flood of attack sheets at last week's debate in Manchester. Kerry doesn't take money from political-action committees, but he does take contributions--and lots of them--from individuals who work for or own the same companies that form PACs. It's a distinction that Kerry insists is crucial, but is functionally meaningless.

But would America elect a Massachusetts senator whom Bush might easily be able to brand as out of step with the mainstream? Republicans have calculated that Kerry in many recent years has had a more "liberal" voting record than Ted Kennedy, who campaigned heartily for Kerry in Iowa. Kerry insists that he doesn't fit the label, noting that as a decorated veteran and former prosecutor--and supporter of the middle-class portions of Bush's tax cuts--he doesn't fit the stereotype. He's an expert shot, though his hunting attire is perhaps too Orvis for the average deerstalker in Pennsylvania or the duck-blind habitues in Louisiana.

Is a non-Southern Democrat electable? Recent history says "no." The last three Democratic presidents (and four of five if you count Harry Truman) were from the Southern or border states. The only exception was one of Kerry's idols and role models, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. It's Edwards's argument that only a Southerner can win in November. "The South isn't George W's backyard, it's my backyard," he bellows on the stump. But White House strategists--and Kerry campaign insiders--scoff at the notion that Edwards could win in the region. ("He quit the Senate because he wasn't going to be able to get re-elected in North Carolina," says one GOP aide.) And some Democratic strategists think that their candidate can win in the fall without a single Southern state as long as they can win in the Southwest, New Hampshire and, perhaps, Ohio. "The notion that we need the South is a myth," said one Democrat.

Before he can answer any of these questions, Kerry has to win more delegates, and he may face a long slog in doing so. Dean was prepared to fight to the end, pulling his coast-to-coast ad strategy and replacing it with one that focuses on key states that vote next week, particularly Arizona and New Mexico. "It's not the strategy we wanted, but it's the one we've got," said Dean polltaker Paul Maslin. "We are in it for the long haul." So is Edwards, who stands to show well in South Carolina.

Much of the attention next week will be on Missouri, a fiefdom of Rep. Dick Gephardt--until he finished a dismal fourth in Iowa and dropped out of the race. Other campaigns descended on the carcass of Gephardt's organization there, and were busy wooing the many unions Gephardt had had on his side. Barring a set of victories by Kerry, the prospect was for a long contest for delegates, especially if Dean managed a comeback of any dimension in New Hampshire. "Soon enough, everybody's going to be running out of money," Maslin said. "This could be a long struggle."

Kerry, who carefully husbands his health, especially in the aftermath of prostate surgery, seemed ready for the marathon. The only medication he takes, he said, is "vitamins in the morning." As his bus rolled to a stop at a hotel in Manchester late last Friday night, he advised departing passengers--reporters and staffers alike--to "get a good night's sleep." It was looking like a long campaign, and everybody would have to tough it out.