Can John Kerry climb back?

On his first campaign swing since Bush opened up a post-convention lead, the Democrat was feisty. But his speeches still ramble and he hasn't decided how rough he wants to play.

Published September 8, 2004 12:38AM (EDT)

As a wet, gray evening descended on the banks of the Ohio River, former Sen. John Glenn slowly made his way to his car. The 83-year-old Ohio legend had just spent two days on a bus with John Kerry, appearing by his side at campaign rallies in Newark and Akron, shooting clay pigeons with him in Edinburg and greeting high school football players with him in Mansfield. Steubenville was the last stop on the bus tour, and John Glenn was going home.

He was halfway to his car when Dennis Kucinich caught up with him. The Ohio congressman had some campaign advice for Kerry, and he hoped Glenn would pass it along. "Can you tell John something for me?" he asked. "It's important."

A lot of people have something important to tell Kerry these days. The candidate Democrats chose because they thought he'd be "electable" is struggling as the presidential race enters the fall stretch. A Gallup poll released Monday shows Kerry trailing George W. Bush 52-45 among likely voters, the first time Bush has had a statistically significant lead over Kerry since the Iowa caucuses. Polls from Time and Newsweek suggest Bush's lead may be even larger, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Michael Moore is weighing in with advice for the Democratic candidate.

The Kerry campaign is trying to portray a picture of calm: Spokesman David Wade reminded reporters in Ohio over the weekend that the election will be decided by a handful of battleground states and not by "national public-opinion polls." But that won't stop the questioning. In a New York Times story Sunday, a half-dozen or so prominent Democrats worried aloud that the Kerry campaign had lost its focus in August and remains stalled now. A phone conversation between Clinton and Kerry on Sunday got big play, as did Clinton's reported advice: Abandon Vietnam as an issue and focus instead on the U.S. economy. Several former Clinton aides have joined the Kerry staff, prompting the media to crow that Clinton was taking over the campaign from his hospital bed.

Sources inside and outside the campaign say the moves have been Kerry's, and that they have been more gradual than the media reports have suggested. Former Clinton aides Joe Lockhart and Joel Johnson actually joined the Kerry campaign weeks ago. John Sasso, who was serving as the general manager of the Democratic National Committee and will now travel with Kerry as a top political advisor, has had the candidate's ear for some time. The New York Times reported Monday that former Clinton stategists James Carville, Paul Begala and Stanley Greenberg will play a "larger role" in the campaign, but it was not immediately clear that their internal roles would be substantial.

A bus tour with the Kerry campaign in Ohio this holiday weekend suggested that some fears about his campaign are unfounded or at least out-of-date. But it also revealed that the Kerry campaign has a long way to go before it becomes the sort of focused, disciplined operation that can beat back Republican attacks and win the White House in November.

Nowhere are the problems -- and in some ways, the opportunities -- more clear than they are when it comes to Iraq. The war in Iraq remains unpopular, and the deaths of seven Marines in Fallujah Monday will only make it more so. John Edwards has taken to calling the Iraq situation a "mess," and Kerry said in a statement Monday that the president's "wrongheaded, go-it-alone Iraq policy has created a quagmire, costing us $200 billion and counting." But in a presidential race that sometimes seems like a world turned upside down, Kerry has somehow managed to allow Iraq to become a bigger liability for him than it is for Bush: In the Gallup poll, Kerry trails the president by 13 points on the question of which man the voters trust more to handle Iraq.

How could that be? "It isn't Kerry's war, it's Bush's war," an incredulous Dennis Kucinich told Salon over the weekend. Kucinich wouldn't say what advice he had asked Glenn to give Kerry, but he did say what he thought Democrats had to do about Iraq. "This is George Bush's war, and we've got to make sure people know that. There were a number of people in the Senate who voted for the war, a lot of people in the House who voted for the war. But it's Bush's war, it's about accountability, and we've got to put that squarely on him."

It may be Bush's war, but Bush has made it Kerry's problem. Kerry still struggles to articulate a clear, concise critique of the war. During the two-day tour through Ohio, Kerry criticized Bush for misleading the country about the reasons for war, for rushing into war, for going to war because he "wanted to," for ignoring the advice of military leaders about the war, for failing to build a bigger coalition for the war, for forcing out Army Gen. Eric Shinseki after he raised questions about troop levels that would be required for the war, for failing to provide body armor for the troops he sent to war, for misrepresenting the costs of the war, for spending $200 billion on the war when people are suffering back home, and for "opening firehouses in Baghdad" when budget cuts are forcing firehouses to close back in the United States.

"I would not have done just one thing differently than the president on Iraq," Kerry said at a campaign stop Monday in Pennsylvania. "I would have done everything differently than the president on Iraq."

Fair enough, but the Republicans have beat Kerry by focusing on one big thing and sticking with it. Virtually every day for the last six months, Bush and Cheney have used the war -- their war -- as the centerpiece of their attack on Kerry's credibility and character. And each time they use it -- in stump speeches by Bush and Cheney, in convention addresses by their surrogates, in TV ads -- they use it exactly the same way with almost exactly the same words. They say that Kerry was for the war and then against the war, and that he voted both for and against funding that was needed to "support our troops."

"My opponent and I have different approaches," Bush said in his convention speech last week. "I proposed, and the Congress overwhelmingly passed, $87 billion in funding needed by our troops doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq. My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets, and fuel, and vehicles, and body armor. When asked to explain his vote, the senator said, 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.' Then he said he was 'proud' of that vote. Then, when pressed, he said it was a 'complicated' matter. There's nothing complicated about supporting our troops in Congress."

Delegates booed and chanted "flip-flop," and the notion that Kerry has vacillated arbitrarily on the war was planted even deeper in voters' minds. The perception isn't accurate, of course. When Kerry voted for the use-of-force authorization in October 2002, he raised many of the same concerns that he raises now. And his for and against votes on the $87 billion were, in fact, votes on two different measures: one that would have paid for the war by repealing Bush's tax cuts for those making more than $400,000 a year, and one that simply added the costs to an already exploding federal debt.

Those votes might actually appeal to voters concerned about the budget deficit, but all they've heard about them is the flip-flop charge. As Kerry spoke to voters Friday on the front lawn of a home in Newark, Ohio, Mike Fox stood across the street, holding up a Bush-Cheney campaign sign. Fox, who owns a lock and security business and served as a city councilman in a nearby town, said he'd have no objection to raising taxes to pay for the war. "I'm in favor of supporting the troops in whatever way it takes," he said. "If it takes calling Mike Fox, who is not a rich American, and asking for more money, they've got it." When told that Kerry had supported such a measure, Fox seemed perplexed and changed the subject.

Back at the campaign event, John Glenn was complaining that Republicans were engaged in "the old Hitler business -- if you hear something repeated, repeated, repeated, repeated, you start to believe it." Glenn said voters should "separate out fact from fiction," but many of them lack the information they'd need to do so. The Republicans have no interest in explaining Kerry's votes to them -- at the Republican Convention in New York, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander defended the use of the "flip-flop" label but then told Salon that he didn't "know the details" of the two votes on the $87 billion -- and Kerry either can't or won't explain them himself. At the Newark event, a supporter all but begged Kerry to state clearly that the vote against the $87 billion was actually a vote for fiscal responsibility. Kerry didn't. At the next stop on the campaign trail, an aide grumbled: "I don't know why he can't take the extra 30 seconds to explain himself."

It's not like the candidate feels pressed for time. At stop after stop in Ohio, campaign events had an undisciplined, almost leisurely, feel. The Newark event stretched on for more than an hour, even though there were -- by design -- fewer than 100 people there. The next day in Akron, Kerry spoke for more than 45 minutes, an eternity at an outdoor rally on a hot and humid summer day.

The Akron speech was rambling and unfocused, as were most of Kerry's speeches during the Ohio swing. He opened each speech with a long pander to the local folks, invariably invoking the names of the local high school football teams and a reference to some local eatery where he'd "heard" that they make the best whatever -- pizza, hamburgers, meatball sandwiches -- for miles around. The rest of the speech was a grab bag, and Kerry filled it with different bits at each stop. He revisited applause lines from old speeches and tested some new ones, and along the way he interrupted himself often with asides, explanations and tangents that made the speeches hard to follow.

For all the talk of Bush's malaprops, the man can sometimes make a simple point clearly. Untroubled by nuance, detail or fact, Bush travels the country saying things like, "Because we acted, our economy is growing." That's not how Kerry speaks on the stump. Here's the candidate in Akron Saturday, trying to go after Bush on what should be easy targets, Friday's announcements of disappointing job numbers and the biggest increase ever in Medicare premiums:

"What makes me angry -- and I say this nicely -- what makes me angry is the complete breach of faith with the American people. They promised four years ago to strengthen Medicare. He promised again a couple of nights ago to strengthen Medicare. And you wake up Friday morning on a day when a lot of the news is being hidden by what's happening in the hurricane down in Florida, what's happening in Russia with 200 people tragically killed by terror, and the news is hidden, but it isn't going to be hidden for long from Americans. Because what they did yesterday was, this president of the United States, made history twice."

Four hundred words later, Kerry was still going at it. He eventually mentioned the job numbers and the Medicare increase, but along the way he detoured with references to Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression, Halliburton, Ken Lay, tax cuts and prescription drugs from Canada. Kucinich said Saturday night in Steubenville that Kerry was "finding his voice" on economic issues, but he still seemed to need a map.

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000, told Salon Monday that Kerry's advisors need to get him on a clear, consistent message and keep him there. "The message gurus need to sit back and say, 'Take all of this other verbiage out of your vocabulary and just say these three things every day, even if it sounds boring, just say it, say it, and keep saying it.'"

Kerry can deliver a strong speech. His convention performance was long but on target, and he was sharp Thursday night in Springfield, Ohio, when he finally fired back at Bush and Cheney for the Swift boat smears. Monday morning in West Virginia, the campaign made a stab at cohesiveness -- a too-cute-by-half speech built around the theme that "W" stands for "wrong." According to an advance text of the speech released by the campaign, Kerry said: "On every issue, from Iraq to healthcare, from jobs to education, W stands for wrong. Wrong choices. Wrong direction. It's time for a president who will lead America in a new direction."

The speech presented a new way to package the themes Kerry had been working toward all weekend. After going right at Bush and Cheney on Vietnam Friday night, Kerry moved farther away from the 35-year-old war -- and closer to the state of the U.S. economy today -- with each stop on the campaign trail. He used Iraq as a way in: Just as Bush misled the country about the war, Kerry said, he misled the country about the effect his tax cuts would have on job creation. By the time Kerry arrived in Steubenville Saturday night, Vietnam was all but gone from his speech. "I really don't want this race to be brought down to a place that's personal," Kerry said. Charging that Republicans wanted to make the race a referendum on what "might or might not have happened 35 years ago," Kerry said he doesn't "worry about those attacks."

It's still unclear just how aggressive the campaign will get. Pseudo-Democrat Susan Estrich has called on Kerry supporters to do the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth one better by founding "the Dead Texans for Truth, highlighting those who served in Vietnam instead of the privileged draft-dodging president, and ended up as names on the wall instead of members of the Air National Guard."

But Kerry's comments on the campaign trail suggest that he'd be uncomfortable going even half that far. When Kerry said that he didn't want the race to get "personal" Saturday night, he appeared to be distancing himself from some of the local partisans who had introduced him earlier in the day. One said that Bush had been "absent without leave" during his stint in the National Guard; another said Bush was "carrying out his responsibilities as a cheerleader at Yale" while Kerry was "carrying a gun" in Vietnam; a third said Bush was "hiding in the woods in Alabama" when he should have been serving his country. Kerry seemed uncomfortable with the tone of the attacks, and in Steubenville he backed away from them.

It wasn't the first time that Kerry seemed a step behind his supporters. At the Akron rally, a woman in the crowd shouted out that George W. Bush hates senior citizens. Kerry could have ignored her but took it upon himself to disavow the comment. "I hope that president doesn't hate anybody," he said, "and I hope we don't have hate in America." At a skeet-shooting photo op on a farm in Edinburg, Ohio, a supporter suggested painting the face of turncoat Sen. Zell Miller on one of the clay pigeons. Kerry laughed but said, "Well, I don't know about that."

It's hard to square Kerry's caution with the tough talk coming out of his campaign. As Kerry was speaking in Steubenville, his traveling press spokesman, David Wade, was telling Salon that the campaign will be hitting the Republicans hard every day between now and November. "We want to crush these guys," Wade said. "They made an enormous mistake questioning the heart and the patriotism of John Kerry, and they'll pay for it for the rest of their lives."

Wade said the campaign will take what he called the "Sean Connery approach" to future attacks from the right. It was a reference to the advice Connery's character in "The Untouchables" gave about beating Al Capone: "If they pull out a knife, we'll pull out a gun," Wade said. "We will always be on the offense, every day."

There were signs of new aggressiveness Sunday, as the Kerry campaign picked up and pushed news that retiring Florida Sen. Bob Graham will, in an upcoming book, charge that the Bush administration interfered with an investigation into Saudi links to the attacks of Sept. 11. News of Graham's allegations broke Sunday, and the campaign was out with a statement almost immediately. The Democrats also moved quickly on a new report indicating that additional documents seem to be missing from Bush's military file, distributing a statement in which DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe said Bush "has some explaining to do."

There may be more of the same in the days ahead as the mainstream media looks closer at Bush's military record and personal past. On Wednesday night, Ben Barnes is set to elaborate on his story of being "ashamed" he helped Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard, ahead of young men without family ties, on "60 Minutes II." Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography of the Bush family comes out Sept. 14, and the blogs and tabloids are already salivating over the salacious details it may reveal.

Brazile said Kerry is right to go on the offensive, but that he's got to be careful when he does it. "It has to be a precision hit," she said, because Bush is the president and because large numbers of Americans bonded with him the moment those planes hit the twin towers. Brazile offered the beginnings of one theme that could work: "On Sept. 11, he led us. On Sept. 12, he misled us."

Brazile said Kerry has plenty of time to turn the race around, but that he has got to start soon. The Kerry campaign stresses the candidate's reputation as a closer: He pulled victory from defeat in Iowa in the primaries, and he came from behind to beat Bill Weld in the Massachusetts race. When the going gets tough enough, his aides and supporters say, Kerry will find within himself all of the intensity he needs. As the Ohio trip ended, Kucinich said that Democrats have "got the issues with them, and I think we've got the guy who can deliver now." The key: Kerry has to do it. "He has to," Kucinich said. "He has to." An aide agreed. A majority of Americans believe that it's time for a change in the White House, the aide said, "But John Kerry himself has to close the deal."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass.