Trail Mix: Good Kerry, Bad Kerry

This is a tale of two John Kerrys. The good John Kerry who can connect with a crowd as a compelling speaker. And the bad John Kerry who can turn a soundbite into a mouthful of gristle. The good Kerry speaks from his life's experience without using the words "Senate foreign relations committee". The bad Kerry speaks from a script like he's clinging to a lifeboat. At back-to-back events in Washington last week, the two Kerrys were engaged in a Jekyll and Hyde struggle over the soul of the Democratic presidential candidate. It wasn't clear who would be left standing in November--or whether his audience would forget the bad Kerry and simply remember the good alter ego.

It was Good Kerry who took to the stage under a broiling sun outside DC's new City Museum to speak to his ideological soul mates. The event looked like a perfect setting for Bad Kerry: hundreds of pro-choice activists who were gathering for the weekend's huge march for women's rights. Bad Kerry likes to indulge in endlessly abstract lectures in front of such crowds, thinking they're experts who can't wait to indulge in a little political philosophy.

Yet it was Good Kerry who emerged blinking into the sunlight. Kerry recalled how he had prosecuted his first felony case as an assistant district attorney in Massachusetts. It was a rape case, and Kerry spoke passionately about the rape victim's fear. Her fear of her attacker, her fear of the legal system, and her fear of being pregnant. That experience led Kerry to start one of the first rape counseling units in the country. It was the kind of performance you rarely associate with him: emotional, direct and real. And it made you realize that the 20-year veteran of the United States Senate had a life before politics that didn't include Vietnam.

His next stop was a far tougher audience of newspaper editors at a swanky downtown hotel. Kerry intended to bury the conventional wisdom that he had failed to explain clearly why he was running for president (other than to win the election). After Bush's strong performance in recent polls, several analysts had suggested that Kerry needed to offer a positive and simple case for his own leadership. "So today, let me tell you why I'm running for president in specific terms," Kerry replied.

Kerry was reading from a TelePrompTer, but trying to jazz up his delivery with a few improvisations. That's where Bad Kerry slipped in. Almost every piece of embroidery, every unscripted word, undercut his bumper sticker message. For instance, Kerry's prepared text carried two simple sentences: "We all know that we live in a dangerous world, with enemies known and unknown plotting and planning to do us harm. Osama bin Laden still has not been captured or killed." But Bad Kerry couldn't resist adding a couple of points between those two punchy lines: "I've served 20 years on the Foreign Relations Committee. I've been chairman of the narcotics/terrorism committee and involved in these issues for a lifetime."

Kerry's speech was based on the notion that it was 10 years since Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America". The text suggested a cute follow-up, to repair what he suggested was the damage of the Republican revolution. Kerry was supposed to introduce a "Contract with America's Middle Class." By the time Bad Kerry had finished with it, the soundbite was this: "So today I want to lay out to you what I think is a fair contract with America's middle class and those who are seeking to join it, who aspire to be part of it." You can see where Bad Kerry is coming from. He wants to be inclusive. But he also just blew his slogan and failed in the deceptively difficult task of keeping it simple.

Does Kerry's speaking style matter? It does if you're struggling to connect with voters, many of whom are still forming their opinions about you and your campaign. It also points to where Kerry and his campaign find themselves now--still shaping their ideas, their slogans and their style of talk. In any normal election year, that might not matter. This year, however, they are already two months into a fierce general election.

A candidate's words can still shape the course of an election. As long as Bad Kerry overshadows Good Kerry, there is another set of soundbites ready to take the lead. Those are the Bush campaign's, and they have proved surprisingly effective in telling another story of two Kerrys. The Kerry who is a Vietnam war hero and the Kerry who is weak on defense.

On the face of it, it's hard to dream up a more pointless political dispute. Who is more patriotic: Bush or Kerry? You may as well compare the size of each candidate's manhood. After all, it seems transparent that both candidates are full-blooded patriots, with a deep sense of duty and a passionate desire to lead the country they love.

Yet the Bush campaign has taken hold of this week's news cycle with relative ease, pushing the story of the Kerry who is weak on defense. Kerry has fallen for the old McCain sucker punch, goaded into an excessive response by the Bushies' taunts about Vietnam. The maneuver was named after John McCain's experience in South Carolina in 2000, when the Bush campaign dredged up some dubious Vietnam vets to accuse the senator (at the time the huge winner in New Hampshire) of abandoning them. McCain overreached by taping an ad that compared Bush to Clinton, suggesting he didn't know how to cool it.

This time around, Kerry's response has prompted headlines suggesting that he is the one "attacking" the other side on Vietnam. He also has been hopelessly distracted from his worthy bus tour of the depressed Rust Belt and his chosen battleground of the manufacturing economy.

Yet this isn't 2000. This time the Bushies have lost their some of their sense of style. In South Carolina they tried to keep their fingerprints off the weapon; now their prints are all over the place. It's hard to run away from Vice President Dick Cheney accusing Kerry of abandoning the troops or Bush adviser Karen Hughes challenging the senator's medal-throwing war protest. Does the president want to attach his name to ads that tout his victories in two wars? Or does he want his surrogates to focus on Vietnam, an era when his service hardly sparkled?

Of course the Bush campaign says this is really about Kerry's consistency. But the flap underscores how the Kerry campaign remains ill-prepared for combat. Given time, it might have taken a cooler position, riding high above the attacks. Instead, the candidate sounds like his frantic aides at the women's rally in Washington last week. Minutes before Kerry was scheduled to speak, someone noticed there was no flag in front of the cameras--or the woman who was supposed to deliver the pledge of allegiance. Two frantic Democratic operatives ran round the back of the crowd with the Stars and Stripes screaming: "Take it to the stage!" Never mind the questions about his patriotism. Kerry still has to answer the question about being ready for prime time.