KERRY BY THE BOOK

It's one of John Kerry's biggest achievements in the Senate: a groundbreaking investigation into money laundering, drug dealers, terrorists and secret nukes. Yet voters have rarely heard of the senator's dogged inquiries into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Why? Because some of Kerry's leading campaign strategists believed it was too difficult for voters to digest. "You can't talk about that because people think you're talking about the BBC," Bob Shrum, Kerry's top adviser, told one senior staffer. "Why were you investigating British TV?"

From corrupt banks to Vietnam POWs, Kerry's Senate record is a mixture of the high-profile and the obscure, of showboat politics and detailed debate, not unlike the man himself. George W. Bush accused Kerry last week of having "no record of leadership." In fact, as the BCCI inquiry shows, Kerry has a serious record that translates poorly into the language of a presidential campaign. That's not unusual for senators, who have struggled unsuccessfully to reach the White House since the days of JFK. But Kerry has been no traditional senator. From the moment he entered the Senate as an ambitious 41-year-old, Kerry eschewed the clubby corridors of the lawmakers, where colleagues like Ted Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts, cast a long shadow. Instead, the younger Kerry preferred the crime-busting culture of his previous life as a prosecutor and the investigative spirit of the Vietnam and Watergate era. He delved deep into the lives of narco traffickers, gun runners and rogue spies. And along the way, he also nurtured his intellectual love of foreign policy--where senators pass few laws and bring home no bacon. To Kerry's aides in 2003, his record looked too senatorial at a time when the country wanted a commander in chief. The result: a largely blank page in the campaign book, which the Bush team has been only too eager to fill.

Kerry campaigned for the Senate in 1984 on grand themes of war and peace, pledging to cut Reagan-era military defense costs. Once in the chamber, he headed straight for a battle-torn hot spot: Nicaragua, where he undertook the lofty mission of boosting peace talks with the pro-communist Sandinistas. That doomed diplomacy was the start of a trail that would ultimately lead the young senator to the door of a corrupt Pakistani bank. Kerry started digging around dark tales of drug dealing and CIA skulduggery in Nicaragua, in what proved to be a foretaste of the Iran-contra affair. But when the full scandal broke, Kerry was pushed aside by more senior senators. His reward was the chair of a terrorism subcommittee, and a platform for more ambitious investigations. Kerry began by probing the life of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, whose regime was smuggling narcotics and arms. Noriega's bank was BCCI and, with the help of staff in his small personal office, Kerry began to unravel an extraordinary story. The well-connected bank, with ties to powerful Democrats like former Defense secretary Clark Clifford, was a network of international crime. Kerry's staff concluded that BCCI bribed government officials the world over, handled cash for Palestinian terrorists and Saddam Hussein, probably funded Pakistan's secret nukes and laundered money for the CIA. Three years after he launched his inquiries, BCCI collapsed.

Even as the bank inquiries rumbled on, Kerry took on another improbable investigation--one that continues to haunt him politically today: American prisoners of war in Vietnam. Kerry's work as head of the POW/MIA committee was bitterly divisive, pitting true believers against hardened skeptics like Republican John McCain. "People now think it was easy to do," says Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator. "But I heard people say to John McCain and John Kerry: 'You are traitors. There are people dead because of you'." Kerry brought together the warring sides in both parties to do what most veterans and senators thought was impossible: write a final report that won unanimous support. Kerry and McCain did more than just debunk the myth of living POWs; they opened the door to normalizing relations with Vietnam. Working with a hesitant President Bill Clinton, Kerry offered the Vietnamese the promise of an end to the embargo as long as they opened their files and POW sites. "He understood how to get it done," recalled Sandy Berger, Clinton's national-security adviser and a former Kerry adviser. "He knew he had to push the Vietnamese and pull us." It was a rare achievement for a senator--to shift U.S. foreign policy and mark an end to the war that had shaped his generation.

Despite those successes, his record at home is far less impressive. Kerry has a lightweight history of legislation, with few signature achievements and little of the follow-through that drove his detective work. President Bush claimed in last week's debate that Kerry had introduced 300 bills and passed only five. In fact, congressional records show that Kerry has authored 376 pieces of legislation since 1985, and passed 56 through the Senate. Of those, 11 were signed into law, but most of those were ceremonial (including two that proclaim World Population Awareness Week). Kerry's aides say this is not unusual compared to others in the Senate. But he certainly pales in comparison to Ted Kennedy. "When you come from the same state as Ted Kennedy, people who want a bill passed are going to go to Ted Kennedy," says Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic operative in Massachusetts.

With or without laws to his name, Kerry has still amassed a record of more than 6,300 recorded votes on the Senate floor--the third longest of any presidential nominee in modern times, after Bob Dole and Gerald Ford. To Republicans, the votes point to Kerry's ultraliberal status; Bush likes to quote a 2003 National Journal analysis that ranks Kerry as the most liberal senator. But that's a misleading measure, based on a year when Kerry was already running for the White House and missed half the critical votes. According to the same publication, Kerry's overall record places him 11th among liberal senators, well behind Kennedy. On taxes, Kerry's record has also been distorted by counting multiple votes for the same bill. On that basis, Kerry has voted more than 350 times for higher taxes, as Bush says. Using the same measure, the Kerry campaign claims the senator has also voted more than 640 times against raising taxes. On defense, it's a similar pattern. Kerry has been cast as a peacenik, but he voted for Reagan's big defense bills at the height of the cold war (even as he opposed the MX missile and Star Wars). In the 1990s he supported big cuts in the 1990s as a "peace dividend." Since 1998, the only defense-spending bill he voted against is the $87 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Neither votes nor legislation captures Kerry's conflicted position on two of the hot-button issues that have defined social values in this election: abortion and gay marriage. Judging by his votes, Kerry is 100 percent pro-choice, opposing the ban on "partial birth" abortion and earning a zero rating from the National Right to Life committee. Yet since his first run for the Senate in 1984, Kerry has insisted that his personal belief as a Roman Catholic means life begins at conception. (He argues that he won't legislate to impose those personal beliefs on Americans of other religions.) Kerry treads the same fine line on gay marriage, voting against the Defense of Marriage law in 1996 (which Clinton signed) and favoring equal rights for gay couples. But again, Kerry says he personally opposes gay marriage, preferring civil unions.

To Bush, Kerry's record is both inconsistent and "out of the mainstream." That depends on what you call the mainstream. Judging by his allies in the Senate, he looks more like a maverick than a mainstream politician. Kerry has worked closely with the right-wing Jesse Helms, become best buddies with the socially conservative McCain and found a Democratic mentor in Fritz Hollings of South Carolina--the cultural opposite of the Northeastern liberal. In the final count, the holes in Kerry's record may be more a question of style than a matter of than substance. "John would never come and jump on your piece of legislation or elbow you to a press conference or steal your idea or fail to give you credit--things that are rampant in this place," says Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on Kerry's foreign-relations committee. "He's classy." That might speak well of Kerry's breeding, but such manners might not make for a winning formula in a presidential campaign.