Kerry's task: clarify his message

Kerry has to give voters a reason to back him, since a third say they don't know who he is.

As John Kerry makes his way toward Boston and the final phase of the presidential race, he's still working to develop a fundamental campaign building block: a clear and compelling message.

For many candidates, the convention represents a key opportunity to refocus their message, as they move from the primary to the general- election campaign. It also allows them to animate political themes and policy prescriptions with a sense of biography. In 1992, for instance, Bill Clinton successfully used his story of a hardscrabble childhood in "a place called Hope" to reinforce his campaign's economic message - and shift attention away from the womanizing issue.

But Senator Kerry seems to be entering his convention with a murkier message than most of his predecessors. Despite millions of dollars spent on early advertising, roughly a third of voters say they know little to nothing about him. And while polls show a majority of voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, Kerry remains essentially tied with President Bush, suggesting that many Americans don't yet see him as an appealing alternative.

Some of this is not Kerry's fault: To an unusual extent, the drumbeat of external events - from Iraq to the 9/11 commission report - has made it difficult for both campaigns to break through. Indeed, Mr. Bush has come under recent criticism for failing to offer a clear second-term agenda.

But while supporters argue Kerry does offer a substantial mix of innovative proposals and a compelling life story, some say he needs to distill those themes into a clearer overall message for voters to grasp.

"I don't think he's been vague as much as he's been complex," says David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for President Clinton. "What he has to do is put himself in a sharper focus."

Democrats argue Kerry is in a far stronger position than most challengers - going into his convention tied or even slightly ahead of an incumbent president, and with the party strongly united behind him.

Yet at the same time, this Democratic unity can be seen as having hindered Kerry's message development up to this point. During the primary campaign, Democratic voters' intense desire to oust Bush from office led them to focus on electability more than anything else - so that candidates often wound up spending more time talking about why they could go head to head with Bush, rather than where they wanted to lead the country.

"The whole primary contest was overwhelmed by the search by Democratic voters for who's the best person to beat Bush," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who worked on Rep. Dick Gephardt's primary campaign. "Kerry had some good solid policy stuff that he talked about, but it just got lost."

Moreover, even now, many Democrats proudly wear "Anybody But Bush" pins, a sign of intensity within the party, but in some ways marginalizing their own nominee.

Critics say that since Kerry effectively clinched his party's nomination in March, he's done little to move his message beyond an "I'm not Bush" theme. "Most candidates get specific and have a message at a much earlier stage in the cycle," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Professor Mayer contrasts Kerry unfavorably with Clinton, who, he says, had a "very clear" message at this stage in the race, based on his economic plan (although, Mayer adds, the economy was significantly worse in 1992, thereby giving Clinton a better platform for his argument).

Still, the basic threads of Kerry's message are clear: The Massachusetts senator is presenting himself as someone who's been tested in a war he didn't support, who came in contact with - and led - a cross-section of Americans during that experience, and is now prepared to unite the country in a time of terrorism.

He is also focusing specifically on the middle-class economic "squeeze" - a component that has become even more central since his selection of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. Lately, Kerry has been incorporating certain elements of Senator Edwards's primary campaign message about "Two Americas," one rich, one poor, into his own speeches.

Surrogates are working hard to reinforce those themes by echoing the same phrases, calling Kerry "a proven, tested leader" with "a lifetime of service and strength."

"He'll close the deal at this convention by being positive, by showing his vision for the country, and by showing the American people he's a proven, tested leader - strong at home, respected abroad," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the convention chair, at a Monitor breakfast.

But the challenge, observers say, is to turn these catchphrases into something meaningful to voters. And the best way to achieve that is by linking the themes to the candidate's biography. While Edwards can talk about growing up in a North Carolina mill town, as a way to bring the economic argument to life, Kerry is likely to focus on his service in Vietnam to impress an image of him as a strong leader.

"It's easier for people to identify with stories than with slogans," says Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council. "That's one of the reasons why the convention is such an important time - because people get to take the measure of these men and see their character and what their lives add up to. It dramatizes what they stand for in a way that a political slogan couldn't do on its own."

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