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John Kerry and the paradox of polish

By BY LIZ MARLANTESStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 5, 2003


Josh Baxter has a question for John Kerry. A small crowd is gathered outside the American Independence Museum here, enjoying the fall sunshine and grilling the Massachusetts senator on everything from veterans' benefits to the Cuba embargo.

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For Kerry, these are friendly faces. Not only is he from a neighboring state, but this town is home to Phillips Exeter Academy, which Kerry's stepson attended and where his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, served on the board of trustees. (The crowd chuckles when he jokes about being in enemy territory - his daughter went to rival Andover.)

But Mr. Baxter, a senior at Exeter, puts forth a nagging concern: "We come from totally different backgrounds," the formerly home-schooled Arkansan tells Kerry. "How can I know that you care about me?"

It's a question that has dogged Kerry, a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage (his mother was a Forbes), throughout his political career. In many ways, though, it has less to do with his wealth and upbringing than with his somewhat mannered style - and his status as a four-term senator at a time when many Americans view Washington politicians as disingenuous or out of touch.

On this occasion, Kerry doesn't hesitate. Where people come from is irrelevant, he responds, so long as they care about the same things. He cites the Navy "swift boat" he captained in Vietnam, with men from all backgrounds who worked and fought together. He tells Baxter to look at his record (or, as he puts it, "the road traveled"): "I'm asking you to measure me not by what I'm telling you, but what I've fought for for 35 years."

It's a strong answer - and afterwards, Baxter says he's reassured. Still, he has some doubts: "I guess I still have this problem," he says earnestly. "I just want to be able to believe a politician's words."

On paper, John Kerry seems like the Democrats' ideal candidate. In an age of war, terrorism, and economic instability, he's the only contender - as he reminds audiences - with experience in domestic and foreign policy and the military. He toiled for 18 years in the Senate before launching this bid, and he carries himself with an air of authority that, early on, gave his campaign the sheen of inevitability. Yet instead of pulling away from the pack, Kerry seems to have slipped back into it. He no longer tops the field in any early primary state, and has fallen behind former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in fundraising for the year. In the critical state of New Hampshire, he trails him by double digits.

Some of Kerry's struggles can be attributed to his failure to articulate a clear message, particularly when it comes to his stance on Iraq. Like other members of Congress running for president, he has been repeatedly challenged by Democratic activists to explain his vote in favor of the war. At the same time, his subsequent vote against Bush's request for $87 billion in military and reconstruction funding has opened him up to charges of waffling.

More broadly, however, his lack of momentum may reflect the national mood. At a time when many voters appear restive - fueling the rise of outsiders like Dean - Kerry's polish often seems more like a liability than an asset. Still, if there's a point in the campaign when experience can reap real benefits, it's this final stretch. Under the glare and strain of a hard-fought campaign, say some, Kerry's preparedness may start to pay off.

"He's certainly been in this thing for the long haul. That's what some people find offensive about him - so much of it looks like it's contrived, because he's been working at it so hard, for so long," says Lou DiNatale, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, who has followed Kerry's career over the years. "But as the race becomes more heated, a certain level of character shows through for Kerry. He gets focused - the language gets better, the imagery pops out. He turns into a real fighter. And in the end, if it's a big brawl, better not count him out."

High sentence and a presidential look