Into the Fray

John Kerry was padding around his backstage room with his family and senior staff when his last serious rival appeared on TV. Three floors below in Washington's historic Old Post Office building, the Massachusetts senator's D.C. supporters and staff were already filling the atrium where the cameras were waiting for his victory speech. But above the hubbub, Kerry was transfixed by the sight of the falling of the last obstacle on his romp toward the Democratic nomination for president. Kerry shushed the room, including the Kennedys and a gaggle of reporters, to hear John Edwards joke about how the pundits and the pollsters had failed to predict the survival of the two Johns. It was a rare moment of release. Kerry clapped his hands and laughed, as his wife, Teresa, clung to his arm. If there's one thing sweeter than victory over your rivals, it's making the pundits look foolish.

Kerry has spent the last six weeks trying to keep a lid on laughing at the pundits. After all, it was that sense of entitlement and expectation that once seemed to kill his campaign. Since his comeback victory in Iowa, Kerry has been caught between feeling nervous about losing his lead and feeling confident as the likely nominee. Those nerves faded for a moment on Super Tuesday night, but there was little time to sit back and savor victory. Even before his last rival had made clear he was dropping out, Kerry received an extraordinary phone call from his next rival. It was the president of the United States. "I'm thinking about you," George W. Bush reportedly told Kerry.

Such calls might be normal on the night of the general election. (Who can forget Al Gore and George W. Bush exchanging snippy words on that historic night in 2000?) But for the occupant of the White House to congratulate a presumptive nominee was as unsettling as it was exceptional. There are only two reasons for such a call. Either the president was feeling warm and fuzzy about the Massachusetts senator, or he was eyeballing his rival like a prizefighter at the prefight weigh-in.

On a day when normally low-profile Vice President Dick Cheney granted interviews to all three cable-news networks, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bush was trying to muscle in on Kerry's spotlight. The next morning at Bush-Cheney '04 headquarters, the president's media team unveiled their first TV ads of the season as they begin to dig into a huge war chest of more than $100 million. After two months of sitting on the sidelines of the Democratic primaries, President Bush can hold back no more. His phone call to Kerry, just like his campaign attacks the week before, shows just how much he relishes the chance to enter the fight.

Kerry said he told Bush he hoped the two men would have what he called "a great debate about the issues before the country." Such niceties mean little when the stakes are so high. Kerry promptly walked out in front of the cameras to deliver his trademark line about Bush's "inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological foreign policy" before condemning the president's position on gay marriage as "the politics of fear." For his part, Bush has already lampooned Kerry as a flip-flopper while his surrogates have accused the senator of voting to weaken both the U.S. military and the CIA with spending cuts. If this is the way the great debate begins, it's not difficult to see how it ends.

Small wonder that even the party hacks are dreading what lies ahead in the next eight months. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was asked last week if the voters might get sick of the attacks he had just unleashed on Kerry's voting record in the Senate. "I am concerned I'm going to get sick of this by October," Gillespie admitted. "I didn't set the calendar for the primaries on the other side," he added by way of explanation.

Such attacks draw an enormous amount of attention from the campaigns and the media alike, not least because everyone loves a good fight. The ghosts of elections past are dug up--Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole, for example--to prove that you can kill a political candidate with negative ads and personal attacks. But they are only ads and press conferences. If TV ads were really so powerful, most Americans would have bought Cadillacs after watching the Oscars. Instead, voters are more than wise enough to watch TV and listen to politicians with a barrel full of salt beside them. So while Bush tries to define Kerry as a tax-raising Massachusetts liberal and Kerry tries to define Bush as a heartless and reckless braggart, there's a far more important challenge for both men in the months before their conventions. Both men need to define themselves.

For Kerry, it's only been two months since anyone paid any attention to his pitch. So far, his story line has worked. Four years ago Bush sold himself as a Christian conservative with a heart, a compassionate conservative who cared about poor folks. Now Kerry is selling himself as a liberal Democrat with a gun--a Massachusetts senator who knows how to fight a war. Over the long haul to the fall, it's tough to maintain enough discipline to stick to your story, especially under hostile fire from your opponents and the wandering gaze of a bored media.

That's where Bush succeeded, and Gore often tripped up, in 2000.

Those lessons have not been lost on the Kerry campaign. The senator staged a speech Tuesday night that looked and sounded less like election night than the acceptance address at his party's convention. Kerry has a plan for health care, a plan for jobs and a plan for foreign policy--all of them worthy of serious examination. Yet Kerry knows that voters choose their presidents for something more personal, more intangible. So, as he clambered up to the rhetorical heights Tuesday night, he shared the stage with something much more down to earth "My campaign--our campaign--is about replacing doubt with hope, and replacing fear with security," he intoned in the cavernous Old Post Office. Behind him, his family hugged and kissed, whispering to one another and holding hands. They were the human face for a senator who can sound cold, just as the Vietnam vets made him seem flesh and blood in Iowa. Over the long months to the July Democratic convention in Boston, Kerry's biggest test will be to remain human, even as his new opponents turn him into a cardboard cutout.