John Kerry is a loser heading toward ignominious defeat in November. With George W. Bush plummeting in the polls, due to the troubles in Iraq, Kerry is only even with the president or a few points ahead in several polls. This shows how weak a contender he is. John Kerry is just the man for the Democrats and poised for a glorious victory in the fall. Running against an incumbent commander in chief in wartime, Kerry is already competitive with the president and has opened up a lead outside the margin of error in some polls. This shows how strong a contender he is.

Which is it? Last month, a flurry of media reports noted that some Democrats were starting to fret that Kerry did not have the right stuff. These Dems seemed to believe that any worthwhile challenger should have been able to pull far ahead of Bush given all the bad news in Iraq. But the panic bubble was silly. As Kerry-campaign people were quick to note, at this point in the 1992 race, Bill Clinton was running third in the polls behind George H.W. Bush and H. Ross Perot. The bitching among Democrats did quiet down. Perhaps because Kerry was bagging record amounts of contributions, perhaps because his campaign was opening up outposts in key states, perhaps because Bush’s continuing free fall could not help but foster optimism in Democratic circles. “People who expected a surge of support for Kerry had a false expectation,” says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of public service at the University of Massachusetts. “The choice voters will make in November will be difficult and painful: to fire a president during a moment when people feel more at risk than they have in decades. People won’t move away from an incumbent commander in chief until they have to.”

Kerry’s recent standing in the polls has clearly been fueled more by anti-Bush sentiment than pro-Kerry fervor. In a Pew Research Center poll last month, two-thirds of Kerry’s supporters said their vote would be more a vote against Bush than one for Kerry. The question is, can Kerry be more than a not-Bush placeholder, in case those much-vaunted swing voters decide they want to vote for, not merely against, a candidate? His recent moves prompt this conclusion: Who knows?

For nearly two decades, Kerry has been an aggravating-to-watch politician. Sometimes he shows flashes of passion and commitment. But other times, he is a flat and uninspiring politician. His overly nuanced position on the Iraq war — voting to give Bush the authority to invade unilaterally while urging him not to use that power — was essentially consistent but understandably foggy to many. He does not seem to jazz up the Democratic faithful, let alone the undecideds. “John Kerry is more of a liberal Democrat than Bill Clinton in 1992,” says a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with the campaign. “So it’s odd the base is less enthusiastic about him. Many Democrats feel that there is some truth to the charge that Kerry is a political opportunist. But he’s not more so than most Democrats and certainly not more so than Clinton.”

So far Kerry’s campaign reflects the candidate’s performance as a politician: generally competent but prone to the occasional boneheaded decision; fine but not exceptional. Not only did the campaign fail to thwart the Bush campaign’s main line of attack — that Kerry is a flip-flopper — Kerry has provided Bush ammo to use on this front. Most infamously, he did so when he said of the legislation that funded U.S. activities in Iraq: “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Anyone familiar with Senate rules knows what he meant. But that won’t help Kerry with the crowd at Denny’s. And Kerry, an abortion-rights champion, recently even had to clarify remarks he made on abortion. “He makes dumb statements,” says a leading Democratic fund-raiser. “He always does that. He doesn’t understand people listen to every word and will twist them.”

Kerry also fed the Bush attack machine when he spent days publicly considering whether not to accept his party’s nomination at the convention so he could continue to fund-raise for another month. Kerry had a point. Since the Democratic convention will occur a month before the Republicans’ Bush fest, the Kerry campaign will have to make the $75 million in public funds each candidate will receive for the general election last four weeks longer. (This is all the money a candidate is allowed to spend after receiving the nomination.) It is not fair. But Kerry was D-U-M-B to ponder a slippery move to game the system. There he goes again, the Bushies cried in delight. Kerry smothered his own message that week.


Then there’s Iraq. Last week, he gave a speech on national-security policy and outlined how his foreign policy would differ from Bush’s. As far as such speeches go, his was, well, fine. He would be less arrogant, more multilateral, more realistic about the threats facing the United States, and not shy about confronting them. But he remains stuck in a quagmire: what he would do about Iraq. He devoted only a few moments to Iraq in this Big Speech, but a few weeks earlier he did lay out a plan to fully internationalize the predicament there: appoint an international high commissioner, bring in more NATO troops, establish a massive training program for Iraq’s security services. His approach to Iraq does differ from Bush’s, but not enough for headline writers and voters who don’t read foreign-policy speeches — which means all the voters who count.

Boiled down, Kerry’s main argument really is, I’m not the fellow who screwed up and got us into this jam, and I have the credibility he lacks to try to enlist the international community in finding a solution to this mess. This is not a bad case — since Kerry has decided not to call for a pullout — but he has not been able to convey that he is indeed the better man to steer through the perilous shoals ahead. In polls, Bush still scores higher on leadership qualities: strength, trustworthiness and the ability to handle a crisis.

Some Democratic consultants outside the campaign worry that even though Kerry consistently talks about such kitchen-table issues as health care and education, the voting public has not yet identified him with an overarching message. “If I had to size up the Kerry campaign as a theater critic, I would say it’s still in New Haven, not yet on Broadway,” Whitehead notes. “He has to perform well on the stump and have a coherent and compelling message by September 15. This is all warm-up and pre-season.”

Maybe at the end of the day, Kerry will only have to show voters he can chew gum, walk and not invade a country on false premises at the same time. If Bush keeps losing the confidence of the electorate, that could suffice. But much can happen between now and Election Day. There will be more tidal waves of anti-Kerry ads from the Bush campaign. When a candidate, like Bush, has low approval ratings, it is usually easier for his campaign to bring down the ratings of his opponent than to lift his own. (Academic experts told the Washington Post this week that Bush’s anti-Kerry advertisements have been the most negative and inaccurate spots hurled by a presidential campaign in recent memory.)

And there’s no telling how external events — more trouble in Iraq, another terrorist attack, the capture of Osama bin Laden — will change the context of the election for those 57 swing voters in the four swing states who presumably will decide the election for the rest of us.

“People shouldn’t misunderstand Kerry because they are not comfortable with his style,” a senior Kerry adviser says. “He’s not the greatest candidate in history. But beating Bush is a collective endeavor.” That may be true, but Kerry could improve the odds of this venture if he and his aides figure out how to mount an effort that energizes voters as much as provides them a safe and reliable alternative who is, like his campaign, fine.

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