Kerry and the 'likability' index

Campaign stresses his 'softer' side to offset an aloof image.

At the Democratic convention, the primary watchword is "strength." Aides and surrogates repeatedly cast Sen. John Kerry as a "strong leader," who believes in the "strength of the nation."

"This campaign, in my view, can be reduced to a single word - and that is 'strength,' " said Kerry strategist Tad Devine at a Monitor breakfast.

But there's a secondary image-molding effort at work here, too, that's almost as important: the effort to humanize and lighten up the Massachusetts senator.

For every description of John Kerry as a veteran, there are equally frequent references to him as a father. The sole surprise of the convention so far was Senator Kerry's appearance at Sunday's Red Sox game, where he threw out the opening pitch and chatted with ESPN announcers about the designated-hitter rule. Kerry, a big fan, simply wanted to go, said his campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill: "He said: 'I can do this - I have a plane. This will be fun.' "

Perhaps most significantly, Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, will speak in Tuesday night's prime-time 10 o'clock slot - a move Ms. Cahill calls "unprecedented." And his daughters and stepsons are playing unusually prominent roles in the convention, too.

Taken together, these efforts seem designed to help counter a longstanding image of Kerry as aloof - something he's battled throughout his career. Friends and family will paint a warmer picture of his character and personality, and may help to loosen up the candidate himself.

Early on, campaign aides noted that whenever Kerry stumped with his daughters, "he seemed to show a side of himself which was great to see," says Mr. Devine. The hope is that "people can see him as a father, as a husband - as someone they can relate to in their own lives."

In an election dominated by war and terrorism, voters may not care which candidate is more approachable, focusing instead on issues - or qualities like toughness and competence. Still, when Quinnipiac University recently asked voters who they'd rather have a backyard barbecue with, 50 percent chose Bush; 39 percent said Kerry.

In a close election, the candidates' personal appeal could make a critical difference among swing voters. "People vote on issues, people vote on party identification, people vote out of habit - a lot of things. But personal traits are not irrelevant," says Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "People do like to think that the man they've chosen to run the nation is a good guy."

Mrs. Kerry frequently acknowledges in interviews that her husband is not a "funny Irishman," but emphasizes other qualities: In one Kerry ad, she praises his generosity and hopefulness, in a moment aides say was not scripted.

Yet as the son of a diplomat who attended elite boarding schools, Kerry has been an irresistible target. The Bush campaign has mocked him as an elitist, a liberal Brahmin who gets expensive haircuts and, most famously, "looks French."

In many ways, strategists agree, what humanizes a candidate most is an ability to empathize with voters' lives. Republicans see this as a significant challenge for Kerry. "I think people look at Kerry and get a sense that there's a significant disconnect there," says GOP pollster David Winston.

Certainly, in trying to bridge this gap, Kerry has occasionally strained to connect. Visiting a modest Pennsylvania suburb on his "front porch tour," he told the crowd that for part of his childhood in Washington he "lived on a street very much like this. You know, we hacked around like all of you do in the evenings and found kids to play catch with." He hastily added he "wasn't there long enough" - since his father's job had the family "packing bags pretty frequently." But, he concluded, "I know enough about it to know what it means to you. It's the heart of America."

Other analysts say the key thing for voters isn't that a candidate shares their background, but that he understands their problems - and will help. In this sense, Kerry's strongest defenses against an image of elitism are his economic proposals. "If he can make the case that he's the guy who will stand up for the middle class, that will solve the likability problem," says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

At the same time, Kerry has a demonstrable ability to connect with everyday voters through his military service. His primary-season comeback was directly linked to fellow veterans' testimonials. In his stump speech, he often talks about his Vietnam crewmates, noting that despite their different backgrounds, they wound up in the same boat.

Indeed, Kerry's Vietnam experience reinforces two key images: a leader, and one of the guys - which is why veterans, as well as his family, are playing prominent roles this week, including on the night of Kerry's acceptance speech.

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