WASHINGTON — In late December, Sen. John Kerry was yesterday's news. He was an analog candidate living in a digital age. He was Vanilla Ice in an Eminem world. How things change.
Tuesday night, a little more than two months later, Senator Kerry will probably all but sew up the Democratic nomination. His Senate colleague John Edwards has struck a chord with populist rhetoric about two Americas and the need to give the poor more and better opportunities, but polls indicate Kerry is the man to beat Tuesday. If everything goes as expected, Kerry will be able to claim a worst-to-first turnaround on par with that of the 1969 New York Mets.
What's behind the turnaround? There are a number of theories floating around. There's the helicopter story, in which the candidate took to flying his own chopper on one swing through Iowa and rediscovered the joy of campaigning - if indeed there can be joy in campaigning. There's the Vietnam angle, in which Kerry communed with some of his band of brothers on the trail and rediscovered why he was running.
These are the kinds of stories we in the press love, a good narrative line full of drama and big characters and hurt feelings and turning points. Thus, the campaign as tacky Hollywood screenplay: A down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet is about ready to cash it in when he discovers that the power to win was always there ... in his heart. Think of it as "It's a Wonderful Life" meets "The Karate Kid" without the karate, of course - unless Jackie Chan is available to play Kerry. Just think of the Hong Kong box office.
There may be some truth to all this - a little. The John Kerry of today is slightly more engaging than the John Kerry of 70 days ago. His words are a little more impassioned and his strength as a counterpuncher, a man who's a better fighter once the opposition sets the tone and tempo of the bout, has come to the fore.
But really, is he that different? The slow methodical speech is still there, as is the coolness, which may or may not be viewed as a positive attribute depending on where one stands.
The truth is that Kerry's turnaround had less to do with Kerry than it did with President Bush.
Until recently, Democrats had assumed Mr. Bush was unbeatable. And, facing a deck that was stacked against them, the party faithful thought it might be smart to throw a wild card at the president in the form of Howard Dean.
Mr. Dean might not win, they thought, but he sure would make things interesting. He would ask the president to answer for his policy mistakes, and the former Vermont governor's pugnacious ways would send a message that the party was down, but not out.
Besides, who knows, Dean's appeal was so quirky it just might flummox the president.
But as the primary votes drew nearer it became clear to many Democratic voters that the picture was changing.
There was a slow economic recovery, but not a lot of jobs. The deficit was soaring and Bush, who beyond taxcuts has never been much of an idea man, seemed stalled. Bush was beatable; and a beatable Bush called for a different candidate - a steady hand who won't do anything crazy.
Enter Kerry, Sam the Eagle in a blue suit, a military hero who ennunciates every syllable of every word. A man unlikely to, say, be caught on videotape screaming like Yoda with his foot in a bear trap.
Kerry's turnaround, in other words, wasn't the result of a magic moment or even a collapse (remember, Dean's concession "speech" in Iowa came after a third-place finish), it was the result of campaign dynamics. He rose to prominence because, in a new environment, he suddenly seemed the best choice.
And if indeed the democrats anoint Kerry with a big win Tuesday night, they are taking a chance. The Massachusetts senator may be the candidate of this moment, but what of the next moment and the one after that?
Reelection campaigns are always about the incumbent, but with Kerry as the Democratic nominee, this one would be more that way than usual. Kerry's message on the stump is not usually about what he wants to do as much as it is about why he isn't like Bush.
The Democrats might be right. But, if they're smart, they'll bring some of Mr. Edwards' populist message along for the ride - and maybe Edwards himself.
Eight months is a long time, times can change. Building an entire campaign just around the president and his perceived shortcomings might not be enough.