Frontrunner’s Blues: Could John Kerry Be Peaking Too Early?

Posted February 14, 2003 at 3:29pm

What’s not to like about Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination for president?

He’s got tons of family money (at least if you count his wife’s), has put together the best early campaign of any Democratic hopeful, and has a geographic advantage in New Hampshire, a key early test. [IMGCAP(1)]

Moreover, Kerry demonstrated campaign skills and savvy in turning back a challenge from then-Gov. William Weld (R) in 1996. He’s polished, poised and substantive enough to strike most observers as “presidential.” And he’s matched against a field that, looked at individually, suffers from some significant weaknesses.

Sounds like a set of qualities and qualifications that anybody running for president would love to have, doesn’t it?

Kerry’s campaign team reads like a who’s who of Democratic operatives, including former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Political Director and Executive Director Jim Jordan, former DNC Political Director Jill Alper and highly regarded field operative (and former Gore campaign national field director) Michael Whouley.

The team also includes former Gore Press Secretary Chris Lehane, Democratic Leadership Council issues guru Will Marshall, former Service Employees International Union Political Director Luis Navarro, media consultant Jim Margolis, pollster Tom Kiley and former Iowa Democratic Party Chairman (and one-time aide to Gov. Tom Vilsack) John Norris as Iowa campaign manager.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have hired their share of political talent, but Kerry clearly has lined up a very experienced and skilled team. And some Democrats who support the other candidates are already alleging (and complaining) that Kerry is hiring talent in Iowa and New Hampshire just to keep them off of somebody else’s payroll.

On the basis of campaign staffing and mechanics, Kerry has pulled out ahead of his Democratic presidential opponents, and appears headed for a rousing welcome in Boston in 2004, where he will accept the Democratic nomination for the right to take on President Bush. Or is he?

While a weak staff and poor mechanics can leave a campaign stillborn, a talented team and near-perfect mechanics aren’t enough to guarantee victory. With the Democrats’ first real test more than 11 months away, one huge question remains about Kerry’s White House bid: Will Democratic voters warm to the Massachusetts Senator?

Most recent successful national politicians — from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and Bush — had two things in common: likability and a down-to-earth quality that made them appear approachable. Each seemed like the kind of person you wouldn’t mind having as a neighbor or swapping stories with over a cup of coffee or a beer.

Kerry hasn’t demonstrated that personal appeal, at least not outside the Bay State. Face it, it’s a lot easier to imagine Kerry sipping cognac than downing a beer, or watching “Masterpiece Theatre” rather than “SportsCenter.” And it’s certainly easier to see him skiing in the Alps than vacationing in Branson, Mo.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with cognac, “Masterpiece Theatre” or the Alps. It’s just that most voters prefer beer, “SportsCenter” and Branson.

The Massachusetts presidential hopeful has yet to prove that he can show the range of emotions that many successful national politicians have been able to demonstrate. He’s good at projecting seriousness, but can he also show a sense of humor, anger, empathy, sadness, glee and even playfulness?

Kerry’s early edge in the Democratic race has nothing to do with his personal appeal, but that’s ultimately what campaigns are all about. So the question remains: Will Massachusetts’ junior Senator connect with the real people who attend Democratic caucuses and turn out for the party’s primaries? (The state’s other Democratic Senator, Edward Kennedy, has no problems “connecting” with party activists, making him an interesting potential asset for the Kerry campaign.)

In a strange way, Kerry’s recent prostate surgery, necessitated by a diagnosis of cancer, could help his campaign rather than hurt him.

Obviously, medical concerns can destroy a presidential candidacy if those issues raise doubts about a candidate’s ability to campaign full-time or, more importantly, to serve in office. While we won’t know for a number of months how Kerry’s bout with cancer and surgery will affect voters, I doubt they will be a handicap as long as the Senator’s doctors stipulate that he is now cancer-free.

In fact, there is a chance the Senator’s medical history could even help him win the Democratic nomination. Kerry’s cancer could humanize him, making him seem less imperious, more vulnerable and more sympathetic. And, of course, it gives him something in common with millions of Americans. He now has a very personal story line from which to launch a general discussion about the availability and cost of health care in this country.

Kerry’s early advantage in the Democratic race will make him a target of the media and the other presidential contenders. But that’s the price he pays for the opportunity to sell himself to party activists who are looking for a candidate to support.

Of course, early stumbles in Iowa or New Hampshire could severely damage or even derail Kerry’s campaign. That said, at this point, any of the other Democratic hopefuls might well trade places with the Massachusetts Senator.