'I'M GOING TO LEARN'

It was a little after 7 p.m. on election night 2004. The network exit polls showed John Kerry leading George Bush in both Florida and Ohio by three points. Kerry's aides were confident that the Democratic candidate would carry these key swings states; Bush had not broken 48 percent in Kerry's recent tracking polls. The aides were a little hesitant to interrupt Kerry as he was fielding satellite TV interviews in a last get-out-the-vote push. Still, the 7 o'clock exit polls were considered to be reasonably reliable. Time to tell the candidate the good news.

Kerry had slept only two hours the night before. He was sitting in a small hotel room at the Westin Copley (in a small irony of history, next door to the hotel where his grandfather, a boom-and-bust businessman, shot himself some 80 years ago). Bob Shrum, Kerry's friend and close adviser, couldn't resist the moment. "May I be the first to say 'Mr. President'?" said Shrum.

The others cringed. Kerry did not respond, at least in any memorable way. In the dark days after the election, he tried a joke: "Until about 7 p.m. that night, it felt great to be the 44th president of the United States." Ever since election night, John Kerry has been trying hard to learn from his mistakes, to cheer his disappointed followers, to avoid sinking into the inevitable depression--and to plot his own comeback.

Kerry has not given any formal interviews since his defeat. But on Nov. 11, nine days after the election, Kerry summoned a NEWSWEEK reporter to his house on Boston's fashionable Louisberg Square. He wanted to complain about NEWSWEEK's election issue, which he said was unduly harsh and gossipy about him, his staff and his wife. (The 45,000-word article, the product of a yearlong reporting project, is being published next week as a book, "Election 2004," by PublicAffairs.)

Despite, or because of, a somewhat stoical and severe New England upbringing, Kerry has a tendency to natter at his subordinates, to blame everyone but himself. ("Did he whine?" was the first question one senior Kerry aide asked of the NEWSWEEK reporter who had recently been to see Kerry.) On this damp November evening, he appeared alone in the house; he answered the door and showed his visitor into a cozy, book-lined drawing room. His face was deeply lined, his eyes drooped, he looked like he hadn't slept in about two years. But his manner was resolute, his mood seemed calm, even chipper.

Why did he lose? Kerry points to history and, in a somewhat inferential, roundabout way, to his own failure to connect to voters--a failure that kept him from erasing the Bush campaign's portrait of him as a flip-flopper. Kerry said that he was proud of his campaign, that he had nearly defeated a popular incumbent who had enjoyed a three-year head start on organizing and fund-raising. Sitting presidents are never defeated in wartime, he insisted (true, though two, LBJ and Harry Truman, chose not to run for another term during Vietnam and Korea). Kerry did not wish to be directly quoted touting himself, however; he did not wish to appear defensive or boastful.

He never quite came out and said it, but Kerry sounded very much like a man who was running for president again. He has a mailing list with 2.9 million names and an organization in every state. His moneymen have not backed away. By and large, Kerry has not been blamed for the defeat, at least not the way former vice president Al Gore was after the 2000 election. Some of Kerry's followers are already plotting how Kerry can defeat Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. The conventional wisdom, already congealing before Bush's second Inaugural, pictures Kerry and Clinton as the early Democratic front runners.

Not all of Kerry's supporters are so sanguine. In the heady days before the election, Kerry's top aides sat around picking a cabinet (one plan was to ask Colin Powell to stay on as secretary of State, thereby avoiding a massive power struggle between Sen. Joe Biden and Democratic foreign-policy wise man Richard Holbrooke). Nowadays the foreign-policy team still meets on the assumption that it could be reconstituted for '08. But the reality is, "it's mostly sitting around some lawyer's office and asking each other if we've heard about jobs," says a member of the team. As for Kerry, says this adviser, "he thinks he's the front runner for '08 without recognizing that he needs to do some soul-searching. If he wants to come back, he'll have to come back as a different candidate, not the stiff who plays it safe and takes four sides of every issue."

Some of Kerry's brave talk may be therapy, an effort to stave off the emotional plunge that has to follow such public rejection. Kerry has moments of real sadness, say his advisers, hours when he disappears to play his guitar. But he wants to keep moving. That evening in November, he told NEWSWEEK, "I'm not going to go lick my wounds or hide under a rock or disappear. I'm going to learn. I've had disappointments and I've learned to cope. I've lost friends, a marriage; I've lost things in life." While he spoke, the phone occasionally rang with calls from family and aides. In his conversations, Kerry sounded like the consoling one. Kerry has tried to comfort and defend his wife, Teresa, who suffers from migraines and has taken personally widespread criticism (much of it by campaign staffers) of her role in the campaign.

Since Election Day, Kerry has made hundreds of calls to supporters and e-mailed them a two-minute video outlining his hopes for the future. "He learned a lesson from Gore in 2000," said an aide. "Gore just walked away and didn't thank people." (Untrue, says a Gore adviser.) Kerry is a realist about his prospects for running in 2008, says his spokesman, David Wade. "He realizes it's impossible to predict. In December of 2003 he was dead. In January of 2004 he was the nominee." In the meantime Kerry is going to play the role of opposition leader. Next week he will leave a family vacation in Idaho (he had planned to do some skiing, mountain climbing and skeet shooting) to travel to the Middle East and Iraq. When he returns, he will introduce two bills in the Senate: to provide for health insurance for every child in America and to increase the size of the U.S. military by 40,000 troops.

Kerry has become deeply fascinated by the task of rebuilding the Democratic Party from the grass roots up, say his advisers. He has hired a streetwise political organizer from Boston named John Giesser, the deputy to 2004 grass-roots organizer Michael Whouley, to run his political action committee. There is talk that Kerry is trying to make Giesser his Karl Rove, though Giesser is said to be too quiet and unassuming to play the role of master manipulator.

While he quarreled with descriptions of his speaking style as "soporific," Kerry tacitly acknowledged that he failed to connect with enough voters on a personal level. Jose Ferreira, Kerry's nephew, told his uncle, "Some people are saying that your candidacy was driven by ABB [Anything But Bush]." Kerry replied: "Do you think so?" Ferreira said that once people got to know Kerry, they were intensely loyal. "Those are the people I let down," Kerry said, falling silent. In conversation with NEWSWEEK, Kerry seemed particularly interested in trying to find a way to speak to ordinary voters that didn't sound too grandiose or "political." Though Kerry did not directly criticize his friend Shrum, it's clear he did not feel well served by his message makers and speechwriters.

The deeper problem may be Kerry's personality, which may be too distant or reserved to win mass affection. As this reporter left his house in November, Kerry called out and followed him down the street. He wanted to show a letter from a schoolgirl that had been left on his stoop. The letter read, in part, "John Kerry, you're the greatest!" Kerry looked into the reporter's eye. "The pundits have never liked me," he said. "Is it the way I look? The way I sound?" He seemed vulnerable for a moment, then caught himself, smiled and walked home to his empty house.