EXETER, N.H. — 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.
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."
Up close, Kerry evinces an almost second-skin comfort with his current role. For most men, running for president "is like nothing you've ever done in your life - I don't care how long you've been in politics," says former Democratic nominee and Kerry supporter Michael Dukakis. "Every once in awhile you pinch yourself."
But Kerry says in all honesty he's never had a "pinch me" moment. "I think I just felt ready for it," he says in an interview.
His campaign has the sophisticated sheen of a presidential operation: Advance men with squiggly earpieces scurry around his events, setting up lighting and sound. The candidate's speeches strike a grand - at times even poetic - note, as if meant for history books as well as present audiences. Almost everyone agrees, Kerry looks presidential: He cuts a strikingly Lincolnesque figure, topped with an anchorman's head of hair and a stern, slightly mournful face that breaks into a boyish smile when he greets voters. His clothes are finely tailored; his shirt stays crisp even after 10 hours on the trail.
"He always looks fresh," marvels Irene Creteau, a New Hampshire state representative who is watching Kerry - seemingly unfazed by the late hour or a balky microphone - address a packed living room in Somersworth at the end of a long day.
Yet here and there, he runs into questions that seem to probe his sincerity. A group of dreadlocked college students pester him about missing a recent vote on a bill to combat global AIDS - a cause he has championed. He missed it because he's running for president, he tells them, adding that if his vote had been the difference, he "would have been there."
At the Fall Foliage festival in Warner, a woman asks what kind of car he drives. He hesitates - it's unclear why she's asking. He owns a Chrysler and an old Dodge, he tells her. But she rephrases the question more pointedly: Why not a hybrid? He wanted one, he assures her, but the models available are all Japanese - and he only buys American cars.
A running theme of the Kerry campaign is "courage." He doesn't use the word about himself specifically: Rather, his announcement speech, given at "Patriot's Point" in South Carolina, appealed to the courage of voters "to change what is wrong and do what is right" - specifically, by electing a president who would roll back tax breaks for the wealthy, restore a multilateral foreign policy, and end US dependence on Mideast oil.
But the word is clearly meant as an implicit reflection on Kerry and his career.
For someone who's spent the bulk of his life as a politician, Kerry actually has a history of challenging the system. In the Senate, he headed a number of controversial investigations, including Iran Contra and the BCCI affair - the latter of which implicated members of his own party. He refused to take PAC money in all four of his Senate campaigns.
Above all, there is Kerry's role as one of the nation's most prominent Vietnam War protesters, who at age 27 testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famously asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
In many ways, Vietnam is a backdrop to his presidential bid. And while Kerry's campaign team is understandably eager to highlight the candidate's wartime heroics, it's a complicated legacy, reflecting in some ways the ambiguities of the war itself. Kerry won three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star for chasing down an enemy combatant with a rocket launcher - an act that at least one of his superiors saw as foolhardy. But he also came back and became the face of the antiwar movement, alienating many of his fellow veterans at the time.
"In life we can only judge people by their actions, ultimately - particularly politicians who are filled with words," says historian Douglas Brinkley who has written a book on Kerry's Vietnam experience, based in large part on the senator's diaries at the time. "In that regard, Kerry's actions in Vietnam were really quite admirable.... He signed up from Yale University, went and did his duty - and according to his men was an excellent lieutenant. But his diaries also show that he was gnawed away at by the political mistakes in Vietnam," Mr. Brinkley adds. "And he didn't just internalize [those feelings]. He publicly went to rallies and protested in the great American tradition of dissent."
On the trail, Kerry is regularly approached by veterans, sometimes with questions, sometimes just to shake his hand. And his war roots show up in other ways, too: In Exeter, he mentions a friend and Exeter alum who was killed in Vietnam, and his voice swells up. At one point, driving between campaign stops, he suddenly pulls the van over to duck into a musty military-surplus store.
The difficult postwar situation in Iraq has heightened the significance of Kerry's Vietnam experience, as words like "quagmire" return to the political lexicon. There's irony in the fact that Kerry once again is finding himself caught in a conflict he initially supported, but has come to oppose, based on what he sees as a betrayal of the public trust.
Still, for many voters now, Kerry's role in Vietnam is no more than a hazy memory - as is much of the nation's memory of the war itself.
Waiting to meet him, Joyce Averill says she recently saw footage of his 1971 Senate testimony. She didn't know much about his stance on Vietnam, she says, but got the impression "he was certainly not for that." She did note one thing: "how young he was - and how long his hair was."
John Kerry is hungry. It's nearing 4 in the afternoon, and although he's heading to a hotel for an hour or so of phone calls - and the possibility of a real meal - it clearly can't come soon enough. His aides rifle around the van, looking for snacks. One hands him a brown paper bag. "No, that's just fruit," Kerry says, with a hint of irritation.
His hunger is understandable, on a day that has already taken him on a red-eye from Phoenix to a funeral for Tip O'Neill's wife in Cambridge, Mass., to a meet-the-candidate event in Exeter, to a tour of a small business in Newmarket.
But in Kerry's case, it also seems inherent - the byproduct of a long, lean frame and a restless nature that by his own admission seeks a constant whirl of activity. While any politician pursuing the White House must be highly ambitious, Kerry has always seemed more insatiable than most.
On this day, he takes matters into his own hands, ducking into a weathered waterfront cafe for lobster quesadillas. It's a moment of freedom for a man whose every minute is scheduled. But even here, he acts deliberately: An avid windsurfer, he sits with his back to the water, saying the view "would just make me want to be out there."
As the primary battle enters the final stretch, this intense drive may give Kerry an edge. Longtime observers note that in previous campaigns, such as Kerry's epic 1996 Senate battle against then-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, he's often lagged behind until the final weeks, when he unleashes a concentrated burst of strength. "The best candidate Kerry can be is likely to show up in the last two months of the campaign," says Mr. DiNatale. "He tends to save his best stuff for the stretch."
Still, it's a relaxed focus - showcasing touches of humor. At Dover middle school, Kerry deftly warms up the crowd with lines like, "I'm feeling good - I've made it to the final nine."
Later, a woman comes up and tells him, "You've won me over from what's-his-name." Smiling, he responds wryly: "Well, I would hope so."
Born: December 11, 1943
Parents: Rosemary Forbes Kerry, of the Forbes family that launched the Boston-China trade, and the Winthrop family, descendants of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; and Richard Kerry, Army test pilot. lawyer, and diplomat.
Religion: Roman Catholic.
Family: Wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry (widow of Sen. John Heinz (R), ketchup-fortune heir); daughters Alexandra and Vanessa; stepsons John, Andre, and Christopher.
Diversions: Owns a Harley Davidson, plays ice hockey, windsurfs; plays acoustic guitar.
Education: Swiss boarding school (his father was stationed in Berlin); enrolled in St. Paul's School in New Hampshire at age 13; BA in political science, Yale, 1966; JD, Boston College Law School, 1976.
Teenage band: "The Electras" (Kerry played bass guitar).
Favorite books: James Bradley's "Flags of Our Fathers" and Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage." On the trail, he's read Clyde Prestowitz's "Rogue Nation," and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed."
Favorite films: "Giant" and "Casablanca."
Early adventures in politics: He worked on Edward M. Kennedy's 1962 Senate campaign and gave a graduation speech at Yale in 1966: On his way to Vietnam, he spoke on "an excess of interventionism."
Work rêsumê: Assistant District Attorney, Middlesex County, Mass.; private lawyer; lieutenant governor to Michael Dukakis; Massachusetts senator.
Net worth: At $600 million (est.), he's the richest member of Congress. (Most of the money is from his wife's fortune.)
Military service: Lieutenant, US Navy; was awarded the Silver Star, three Purple Hearts, and the Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam; Naval Reserves.
• National coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 1969-'71.
• Introduced one of the Senate's first bills forbidding job discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1985.
• Worked with Sen. John McCain (R) in 1992 on finding out whether there were still American POWS in Vietnam.
• Worked on a Russian nuclear-arms reduction policy.
• Headed investigations into Iran-Contra affair and the BCCI banking scandal.
Campaign touchstones: • Wants to allow all Americans to buy into the healthcare plan used by members of Congress.
• Would repeal some Bush tax cuts, but keep those for the working poor and middle class.
• Proposes "Service for College" program, granting the equivalent of four years' tuition in exchange for two years of community service.
• Vows to block the nomination of any Supreme Court justice who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
• Wants to make the US independent from foreign oil within 10 years.
Key legislative positions:
• Voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war in Iraq, but voted against Mr. Bush's request for $87 billion to help fund reconstruction, and has criticized the administration for a lack of "diplomacy" and called for a gradual withdrawal of US troops.
• Supports affirmative action.
• Supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage.
Source: Compiled from wire services, MSNBC, ABC, Hotline, Roll Call, The Providence Journal, and other published accounts.