Even spurned, Kerry gains from running-mate quest

In last week's column I wrote about President Bush's reelection prospects in the fluid world of American politics.

It seems only fair that this week I should take a look at Sen. John Kerry's prospects of wresting the White House from President Bush.

Here I must inject the mandatory caveat. Webster's dictionary defines "caveat" as "a warning." Actually, in the business of journalistic punditry, "caveat" means hedging your conclusions so carefully that you don't look totally ridiculous should someone reread your column several months hence and measure it against how things actually turned out. So my caveat is that politics are unpredictable, we are a long way from voting day, and anything can happen. In other words, caveat emptor - let the buyer (or reader) beware.

After a week in which newspapers and television were understandably preoccupied with President Reagan's passing and funeral, and any pronouncement from Senator Kerry sounded as though it were coming from a deep well, Kerry is recapturing some of the good-news headlines.

For instance, his donations jumped $25 million last month, bringing his presidential campaign total to $140 million. Bush, who attracts campaign money as flypaper attracts flies, is still comfortably ahead, at around $216 million, but Kerry is hardly faced with having to sell off his Harley-Davidsons.

Kerry is also capturing a lot of ink in the newspapers with his supersecret interviewing of potential vice-presidential running mates. Trying to stop reporters from ferreting out the details of such meetings is like trying to keep a hungry horse from the feed trough. It's a kind of challenge to their machismo, and the result is a string of stories about whom Kerry is talking to, whom he is not talking to, and who is saying they won't say whether they have been talked to.

Republican Sen. John McCain, Kerry's so-called "dream" running mate, won't do it, and doesn't want to be talked to any more. Sen. John Edwards, whose boyish charm wowed many Democrats and some Republicans while he was running against Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination, is willing to be talked to as long and as often as Kerry wants, as are a string of other would-be vice presidents. At the time of writing (there goes that caveat again), Kerry hasn't given up talking to the candidates, but is not talking to the press about it, and the resulting publicity surrounding this supersecret talent search is working to his advantage.

Then there is former President Clinton's decision to plug Kerry while out hyping his new book, "My Life." There are some potential downsides to this. One is that Clinton, who is still Mr. Charisma to many Democrats, might overshadow the candidate, who is not. There is also the possibility, as Al Gore calculated, that Bill Clinton is more of a liability than a plus. Some Democrats might prefer to have Hillary stumping for Kerry, rather than Bill. But on the other hand, a recent Harris Poll found that only 49 percent of Americans think Hillary helped the image of the first lady while in the White House, while 79 percent think Laura Bush does a fine job of it. Alas for Kerry, while he can get Bill and maybe Hillary - with their respective pluses and minuses - campaigning for him, he obviously can't get Laura, a sure plus.

On balance, all this publicity is good for Kerry. So, too, was the conclusion by the 9/11 commission last week, that there was no Al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein alliance. This gave Kerry another opportunity to charge that President Bush lied about the rationale for the war. Of course, there remains no question that Bush did unseat a mass-murdering tyrant, thereby doing much of the world a distinct favor. Most Americans still think this was a good thing. Kerry's difficulty is that he has to tiptoe around this fact, agreeing that the deed was noble but arguing that the execution was imperfect.

In an intriguing Week in Review piece earlier this month The New York Times, whose editorial page barely conceals its disdain for Bush, speculated that the polarization of the nation may be a myth and there is much less of a political divide than one might think. If this is so, and Americans' concerns are largely common, Senator Kerry must yet find the magic formula that will persuade the electorate to toss out the incumbent and take a chance on the challenger.

Caveat emptor.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was assistant secretary of State for public affairs in the Reagan administration.

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