After a long swoon marked by snoozy stumping, staff feuds, and the inevitable campaign shakeup, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is trying to claw his way back into the Democratic Presidential race. Kerry sports a new, earthy slogan ("the real deal"), reinforcements air-dropped in from Senator Ted Kennedy's headquarters, and a tad more aggression on the hustings. But increasingly, the Establishment bigwigs who once saw Kerry as a safe-and-sane alternative to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean are wondering if the Bay State aristocrat is destined to become an early casualty of the Presidential race.
With the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary looming and Dean holding a commanding lead in the state, the pressure on Kerry to break out is immense. But even on his home turf, there are troubles. In a Nov. 19-21 poll by RKM Research & Communications, he trailed Dean by 9 points in Massachusetts. What's the problem? Kerry's detached sang-froid seems to pale in the face of Dean's fiery populist orations. "Dean is having a virtual coronation in New Hampshire," says a Democratic strategist. "If you're second, you have to take the guy down. Kerry isn't making Dean play defense."
To rally from behind, Kerry will have to pull off a difficult balancing act: Knock down Dean -- without driving away undecided voters or rallying the governor's core of loyalists -- while providing a positive message for his own supporters. He'll have to convince voters that his four Senate terms make him the best candidate to take on President George W. Bush, even though this year the activists who dominate the primaries seem far more excited by the prospect of a Washington outsiders.
With time growing short, Kerry has scant room for error. He needs to come in a credible third in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, behind Dean and Representative Dick Gephardt. Then it's do-or-die time in New Hampshire. Kerry must eke out a victory there over Dean -- while hoping that Wesley Clark or John Edwards causes the Vermonter to stumble on Feb. 3 when the race turns to South Carolina and other, more moderate states. "This race is there to be won," Kerry told BusinessWeek. "I'm going to fight back."
Kerry has unleashed an ad blitz in Iowa and New Hampshire. And he vows he won't be outspent. By forgoing public funds, he's poised to tap a family fortune enriched by his marriage to heiress Teresa Heinz. Although Kerry alternates between being a stiff and a swell on the campaign trail, he's promising more press-the-flesh events, including some Bill Clinton-like 24-hour marathons. Meantime, former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen's decision to co-chair Kerry's campaign will give the senator access to a still-potent organization.
Kerry has to do something he has failed at thus far: provide a compelling rationale for his candidacy. Indeed, he has trouble coming across as a passionate pol who fights for Middle America. With his attenuated frame, sparkling starched shirts, and aristocratic mien, he looks every inch the Beacon Hill Brahmin. The "real deal"? That's the nickname of former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield, who was a great fighter in his almost 20-year career but never managed to electrify the crowd. Cleaner air for California, yes. For the rest of the country? Hasta la vista, baby. That's the message of a compromise brokered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Senate Republicans, who are eager to help GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger meet clean-air standards. At issue: California's tougher emissions rules for lawn mowers and other small-engine machines. At the behest of engine maker Briggs & Stratton (BGG) Corp., Senator Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) wanted to block those strict rules. Schwarzenegger lobbied to terminate Bond's measure -- and Washington Republicans pitched in. The compromise they made with Feinstein: Let California tighten the pollution standards but block the other 49 states from doing the same. Briggs & Stratton execs are ecstatic. Enviros are enraged. The Clean Air Trust has named Feinstein a "clean air villain" of the month. Labor leaders are mobilizing the rank-and-file for a last-ditch effort to block a Bush plan increasing employers' leeway to forgo overtime pay for more workers. On Nov. 20, in the face of a White House veto threat, Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) lost their bid to add language halting the OT rule to a spending bill. Now, the Labor Dept. is racing to issue a final rule in December, before the stalled spending bill resurfaces. But Specter and Harkin have vowed to keep fighting, and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney is mobilizing tens of thousands of activists to ask Congress to block the new reg when lawmakers reconvene in January.