Trail Mix: High Hopes

After four days of extreme sports and extreme speechwriting on Nantucket, John Kerry embarked on his countdown to the Democratic convention looking unusually unstressed. Maybe it was the time he spent kiteboarding, a strange mixture of surfboarding and paragliding, which Kerry chose to display to the TV cameras this week. It takes a supreme kind of confidence to perform any kind of televised show of physical skill as a presidential candidate, given the ample moments to look downright foolish. Gary Bauer could barely manage a pancake-flipping contest, and Michael Dukakis struggled to look presidential riding in a tank. So why in the world would you want to kiteboard in front of a camera?

Like George W. Bush, Kerry plays to win, and he approaches all sports in an intensely competitive spirit. In 2000, Bush liked to challenge reporters to run with him, confident in the knowledge that he could outpace them in any climate. The handful that kept up with him earned his enduring respect--and his unquenched desire to beat them. Bush would draw on running images on the trail, suggesting that the campaign was like a marathon even though his personal style was more like a speed trial.

Kerry prefers to perform solo, and he rarely compares his political goals to his sporting life. But his desire to prove his physical and mental supremacy to the media is no less obvious. It's not just about the winning, it's about the style of his victory. Where Bush wanted to beat his personal-best times, Kerry wants to master complex techniques that also require strength and endurance. As an image for the candidates, running poses fewer dangers than obscure water sports. Kerry may be trying to banish any questions about his health (he had prostate-cancer surgery in 2003). But he also runs the risk of indulging in the kind of elite leisure pursuits that are rare in Middle America.

For all that, the jaunt in Nantucket was much less about the media image and much more about Kerry's mind-set. Kerry told reporters that he wanted to take some time out to prepare himself for the biggest speech of his political career, and he wasn't just talking about sifting through competing drafts of soaring rhetoric. Early in his campaign, he said he had talked to former nominees and presidents--Al Gore among them--and sought out their advice on how to survive on the campaign trail. Kerry's lesson: don't run yourself into the ground.

Sure enough, when he emerged on his campaign jet near Boston, Kerry's face looked a little less craggy and his silver hair looked a little darker. But more importantly, he looked like he was enjoying the challenge of the next week, which is much more about style than substance. If Kerry can survive a high-speed, wind-propelled skimming across the open seas, the prospect of reading a convention speech from a TelePrompTer in Boston's Fleet Center seems slightly less risky.

The Democrats and the media prepare to take over Boston next week in the surefire knowledge that there will be no surprises--apart from the staged surprises that we've come to expect. In 2000, those surprises included the Republicans playing soul tunes and Mariachi numbers in Philadelphia (message: George W. Bush really is a Different Kind of Republican). And Al Gore kissing his wife, Tipper, in Los Angeles (message: Al Gore really isn't as wooden as he sometimes seems). High-powered journalists gathered around both conventions debating whether Bush was truly different from Newt Gingrich, and whether the Gores really loved one another.

The one substantive development in Boston could have been a refusal to take federal money in the general election. Money has swamped the campaign, much of it through the Internet, allowing Kerry's advertising to remain competitive with Bush's. Some senior Democrats have urged Kerry to revisit his decision to take federal funding in the general election, in case Bush decides to continue fund-raising and spending unlimited amounts in the fall. But Kerry's campaign says the decision has already been made: they will take the $75 million federal check.

With that surprise ruled out, the last remaining challenge of the convention is--like the other set-pieces of the presidential campaign--the battle of expectations. Whether it's the veep pick or the TV debates, Kerry needs to set and beat what the rest of us think he's capable of. That explains why his Republican opponents have been so keen to implant the notion that Kerry should enjoy a 15-point bump out of the convention. If the expectations are set high, a no-pratfalls convention will be viewed as a disappointment. That's also why the Kerry campaign says a double-digit bounce is unreasonable, considering how unified the Democrats have proved to be this year.

Those expectations need not have much bearing in reality. During the 2000 campaign, the Bushies proved skilfull in setting the bar high for Al Gore during the TV debates, and low for the then-Texas governor. This time around, the same strategy is at work on both sides. Why else would Kerry's advisers suddenly tone down their confident projections of victory? And why else would Republicans suggest that Kerry is suddenly one of the strongest candidates ever? (Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told CNN earlier this month that Kerry and Edwards were "two of the probably best debaters on one ticket maybe in the history of the country.")

Such manipulation is about as subtle as a stage-managed convention. They're designed to move the polls at the margins, and failing that, move our reading of the polls. Yet they're all we have until the real votes are cast in November. After next week's convention, Kerry will set out on a three-week tour of the United States, much of it by land and some of it by water. It's not clear yet whether a kiteboard will be one mode of transport. But if it is, the expectations of how he'll perform are already far too high.