Trail Mix: Clunky Kerry

They threw their heads back and laughed heartily as if they were sharing a joke about the good old days. They squeezed each other's shoulders and exchanged big bear hugs. They even wore the same outfits: light blue shirts and deep red ties. In the bright sunlit plaza, filled with hundreds of adoring students, you might think the two middle-aged men on stage were the best of friends.

But for most of this year and all of last year, they were the worst of enemies. John Kerry and Howard Dean used to speak of one other with disdain dripping from every word. Their aides heaped scorn on each other, pointing to a long list of ills ranging from hypocrisy and incompetence to downright loser status.

So their joint appearance at George Washington University last week, when Dean formally endorsed Kerry, was meant to bury the hatchet and inspire their young supporters to do the same. But this turned out to be the kind of political compromise that gives politicians a bad name. And sure enough, the student crowd seemed a touch unconvinced even as they did their best to cheer them on.

The event, like the fundraiser that followed, was intended to show how united the Democrats have become in their crusade to unseat George W. Bush. Sure enough, they are remarkably united and passionate about ejecting the president from the White House. But Kerry's joint appearance with Dean, just like the senator's later session with Bill Clinton, showed the best and worst of the party's presumptive nominee.

For all his many faults, Howard Dean knew how to fire up a crowd. Of course at times it could get a little too hot, and when Dean started screeching about sending Bush back to Crawford, Texas, many in the audience winced. But his message was at least motivational.

In contrast, Kerry knows how to dampen down a crowd. Even his slogans seem clunky. The Kerry campaign printed dozens of T-shirts for its Dean event saying "Change Starts Here"-a slogan that the candidate himself wanted to drop for the far punchier Dean catchphrase. "These are not just words," Kerry said pointing to a T-shirt, "that is reality. You have-whom am I quoting?-you have the power!" The crowd gave a few whoops before Kerry plowed on. "We are going to give America a dialogue about our future that we can be proud of, and will give you the future that you want and you deserve."

You can never be sure what drives people to volunteer for presidential campaigns, but I bet there are few who march for a higher standard of public debate. Kerry wound up his address with this call to arms: "We need to reclaim your future. We need to reclaim our democracy." Fine words, but Dean used to put it a little more bluntly: "We're going to take our country back."

Does a punchy delivery really matter? In a general election, TV ads mean more and the candidate's clunky speeches can be glossed over. Besides, Bush himself enjoys a complex relationship with the English language and is a far from perfect public speaker. However, Kerry's clunkiness remains a symptom of something deeper. In a long and bruising general election, Kerry will need to fire up his base for fundraising and organization over many months. Supporters-even ones who dearly want to beat Bush-will flag, especially when faced with the onslaught of attack ads from the other side. The Dean event was Kerry's first after his supposedly refreshing skiing vacation. If this is what a rested Kerry sounds like, he needs to take more vacations.

Yet the same caution that leads Kerry to sound clunky can also be a strength when it comes to campaign strategy. Where Kerry succeeded in recent days was his distinctly cautious handling of the Richard Clarke controversy. It would have been easy for his campaign to tear into the White House, jumping on every mis-statement as if the opinion polls depended on it. Instead the campaign discovered a new subtlety, which many people mistook for complete silence. In reality, the campaign wasn't silent. It just sidestepped the most explosive charges to focus on the debate over the debate. Kerry's aides said they wanted to wait for the commission to "run a process." Meanwhile the candidate confined himself to questioning Condoleezza Rice for refusing to testify in public and under oath.

Now that the White House has agreed to let Rice testify, you might think Kerry had missed a golden opportunity. Yet Kerry has again planted the seeds of the credibility question-his signature attack on the Bush administration, and a classic move for a former prosecutor. Adapting a Jimmy Carter line, Kerry only hinted at the 9/11 dispute as he stood beside Dean last week: "I as president will tell you the truth and will never take this nation to war with false information," he said. In private his aides have gone much further, attacking the president's foot-dragging approach to the 9/11 commission. Their thinly-veiled criticism is that Bush has something to hide about the run-up to the attacks. "There is a question about whether the administration really wants to get to the bottom of why 9/11 happened," said one senior Kerry adviser and foreign policy veteran. "9/11 shouldn't have happened. It should have been prevented. Every member of the previous administration has been open and accessible to the commission because it's not a partisan issue."

Watching the defensive White House response to Clarke, the campaign felt it was finally gaining ground on the president's commanding poll lead on the issue of the terrorism. "If he doesn't have 9/11 on which to stand, then there's nothing else holding up this presidency," says one senior Kerry aide. "That's why they came out with full guns blazing."

Just as well the Kerry campaign kept its guns in their holsters. If anyone wanted to know what the alternative looked like, they need only have cast an eye at Howard Dean. "I got such a kick out of seeing the president huffing and puffing at the testimony of Richard Clarke this week," Dean said with a smirk as he stood alongside Kerry. There are limits to the power of blunt talk, and Howard Dean can normally find them in a yelp.

That might just explain why Kerry and Dean, the new best friends on the campaign trail, are unlikely to spend much more quality time together. When Kerry left the stage he walked alone, leaving Dean far behind him, still waving at his adoring students.