What Kerry Means To Say...

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JAY L. CLENDENIN / POLARIS FOR TIME

Kerry boards his bus after an Ohio event

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Kerry may sometimes overestimate the appetite of the public for the nuances of his positions. He thinks if he just explains long enough, says the former aide, he can make anyone agree with him. Kerry's allies and friends insist that voters will eventually discern an underlying honesty to Kerry that makes him more than a cartoonish, obfuscating figure. "If you look at his public career, it's been just the opposite. He's not been unclear on the environment, on labor and education issues," says former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey. "His reputation in the Senate is that you can trust his word. If he believes in something, he'll fight for it."

And yet, appearances have a way of taking root as reality in the voter's mind. Just ask Al Gore, who was never able to live down his hair-splitting "no controlling legal authority" performance during the Clinton Administration campaign-finance scandals, or his boast that the novel Love Story had been based on him. Gore even took heat for claiming to have invented the Internet, although what he was actually talking about was having pushed the Defense Department to create the precursor to it. Small miscues that other politicians might have laughed off stuck to Gore like chewing gum on his shoe. Looking weaselly was lethal for Gore after Clinton, of "it depends on what the meaning of is is" fame. It's also a handicap for Kerry going up against a President known for saying what he believes, regardless of whether anyone agrees.

Democrats draw comfort from the fact that it's still early and Kerry as a candidate has a history — borne out in the Democratic primaries — of being "a good closer." In past campaigns, aides say, he prevailed by putting together a disciplined message that compensates for his verbal bunglings. And in many local papers, it's the content of his speech that gets through. Last Wednesday's Cleveland Plain Dealer showed Kerry focusing on police layoffs, vanishing local-tax bases, foreclosures and school cutbacks. Democrats are also hoping that at a time when the country is at war, the economy is still wobbly and the electorate is anxious about the future, voters will be less willing to indulge concerns about a candidate's personal quirks. "That stuff will be wiped away when Kerry takes the election to a big set of issues and a big set of choices," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

There are signs that the Kerry campaign is not counting on that strategy alone. The candidate will make a stab at introducing himself on his own terms with a long-awaited biographical ad set to begin running this week. And it appears as if his Veep search, whose outcome is always a personally revealing moment, has reached the vetting stage. Among those under serious consideration: two of Kerry's former rivals for the nomination — North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt — and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. These steps will go some way toward neutralizing the effective fill-in-the-blank campaign that Bush has been running against Kerry, which, if it continues, could leave voters with a collection of gut impressions that will be hard to reverse.

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