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John Kerry and the paradox of polish

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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."

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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.

The profile of 'courage' and a veteran at home

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?"