Shifting Gears

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Eric Gay/AP

Playing catch-up: Facing a strong challenge from Dean, Kerry announces today

Not so long ago, everyone — even John Kerry's rivals — assumed that after Labor Day the lanky Massachusetts Senator would be cruising at the front of the Democratic pack. He had the war-hero bio and plenty of foreign policy credibility (perfect for post-9/11 politics), plus prodigious fund-raising abilities, a personal fortune and the best presidential hair since J.F.K. But as Kerry officially announces for President this week — a symbolic political rite that glosses over the fact that he has been running flat-out for a year — the question being asked most is the one a man put to him at a backyard gathering last Thursday night in Derry, N.H.: "How do you distinguish yourself from Governor Dean?"

As the Democratic race begins in earnest, it is the question not only for Kerry but for all the other candidates as well. Ever since Howard Dean started setting the pace this summer, Kerry and the other candidates began retrofitting their strategies so they might emerge as the ex-Vermont Governor's principal rival. The internal question now for all the other campaigns is, Howard and who else?

But none of the eight other candidates has been so jolted by Dean's rise as the man who was once presumed to be the front runner. A Zogby International poll last week showed Kerry running 21 points behind Dean in New Hampshire, the neighboring state for both men and one in which a loss could be devastating for either. Kerry's forces say their private numbers don't look quite so grim, but they acknowledge a double-digit gap in a state where their man was leading slightly more than a month ago.

Kerry insists that he is not surprised by any of it (has a politician ever admitted being surprised by a rival?) and that he's actually doing better at this point than he expected. "There was always going to be some other candidate," he said in an interview, adding that expectations about him were "smoke and mirrors. People looked on paper and said, 'Well, John Kerry is strong.' But in fact I'd never run nationally. I'd never been out there."

Yet the logistics of his announcement suggest some radical rethinking. Kerry dropped his plan to make his announcement in front of Old Ironsides in Boston Harbor and instead will do it in South Carolina, in front of an aircraft carrier. The switch puts more emphasis on his military background and less on his Massachusetts roots, which are both political baggage and a reminder of how directly he is competing with Dean. And the aircraft-carrier backdrop draws a more direct contrast with a different presidential candidate: George W. Bush. You can count on hearing Kerry's favorite applause line of late: "I learned something about aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin — I learned about them for real."

South Carolina may not be home ground for Kerry, but he figures it is alien territory for someone else. "I'm prepared to campaign in the South," says Kerry, "and elsewhere in the country where it's viewed as being harder." Harder, that is, for Democrats — and especially for one particular Democrat from Vermont who has become the darling of the party's angry antiwar, mostly northeastern left.

But Kerry's problems, his advisers concede privately, cannot be solved by splashy photo ops alone. He is making his appearances punchier, his speeches shorter, his answers more direct. "I'm trying to be simple," he says, and then, sounding like his own political consultant, he adds, "I'm trying to make sure that I forget about Washington and leave the Senate far behind." His aides have realized that you can't win on a hero's biography alone (see John Glenn and Bob Kerrey) and that the hero must wrap his personal story in a compelling message. So far, Kerry's message has been buried in the nuances of issues, where his senatorial disquisitions often leave him looking as though he is annotating a bill rather than proposing a policy.

So just how is Kerry distinguishing himself from Dean? In a word: experience. Kerry told his questioner in Derry that Bush has shown us it is not wise "to elect somebody President of the United States who has no experience whatsoever in security and foreign policy at this moment in America's history." It may help that Kerry is getting fewer questions these days about his vote last fall authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq — the issue on which Dean has pounded him and the other top-tier contenders who supported the war. Instead voters are asking how the candidates would handle the situation there now. "I-told-you-so is not a policy," Kerry says.

In the next two weeks, the pace — and the stakes — will pick up for all the candidates. Most of them, including Kerry, will have begun their television advertising. A debate on Thursday night in New Mexico will kick off a series that promises to be more defining and engaging than the endless series of "candidate forums" that they have been holding before special-interest groups. And retired General Wesley Clark, whose criticism of the Iraq war has special resonance, given his background as NATO commander in Kosovo, is expected to announce soon whether he will join the race. His entrance could trump Kerry's military credentials.

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