Comeback Kerry

Maybe it was the volunteer firefighters.

A month ago Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) seemed to be such a fumble-mouthed bumbler that one columnist urged him to "accept the fact that the game is over," and another organized a betting pool to guess the date when he'd drop out of the presidential race.

Now he's the charming, articulate, if not quite charismatic front-runner, raising the question of whether he underwent a personality transplant.

There is no such thing, of course. Nor is there any great mystery to the senator's transformation from political zombie to "Comeback Kerry," as he described himself after winning the Iowa caucuses Monday. It's just basic politics: a new senior staff, hard work, persistence, luck and volunteer firefighters.

Actually, Kerry was never as bad as some observers had determined, nor is he all that good now. If he had been the clod portrayed by the punditry, he wouldn't have been able to attract the kind of elite support that helped him win in Iowa.

"We were signing people up all summer and all fall," said John Norris, who ran Kerry's Iowa organization. Among those who signed up, Norris said, were several Democratic state legislators who played a key role in the finals days of the Iowa campaign. "While everyone was looking elsewhere, we were building a heck of an organization," Norris explained. "And despite all the negative stories about being low in the polls, they didn't leave us."

As to Kerry's present performance, check out his victory speech in Des Moines on Monday night. It sounded like one of those meandering collections of platitudes so often delivered during debate in the Senate, perhaps a clue to understanding why no senator has been elected president
since 1960.

But those low poll numbers were real, and so was the aimless monotony of a Kerry stump speech. He was thrown off his game early last year by former Gov. Howard Dean's (D-Vt.) surge into the lead in New Hampshire, where Kerry once assumed he'd win easily. He tried all the usual ploys in the political consultant's instruction book. He attacked Dean, then he ignored him, then he belittled him. The only result was that Kerry got increasingly frustrated and fell farther behind Dean in the New Hampshire polls.

So Kerry effectively abandoned the Granite State, inspiring even more predictions of impending doom. It turned out to be a good move. He concentrated on Iowa. It has lots of volunteer firefighters, many of whom are veterans. Many who are not wish they were, giving them an easy rapport with former U.S. Navy Lt. Kerry, a Vietnam War hero who turned against the war.

Last November, Kerry started appearing before veterans' organizations and fire departments all over Iowa. The folks there liked him, and politicians, it turns out, are almost human -- a friendly reception brings out the best in them. Once among the kind of guys who might have been his shipmates, Kerry regained his political sea legs.

"He personally got a lot sharper and more focused," said David Yepsen, The Des Moines Register's veteran political columnist who covers Iowa politics as closely as anyone. "His 500-word answers came down to 250-word answers. He started to connect with the voters."

"I really noticed the change at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in November," Norris said. "I think he really got excited about the energy he saw, more engaged with the audience. That's when he started doing Q-and-A, and staying until every question was answered."

It is no coincidence that it was in mid-November that Kerry fired Jim Jordan as his campaign manager, replacing him with Mary Beth Cahill, who had been chief of staff to Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). She was joined by a few other Kennedy political operatives, and, in the final days of the Iowa campaign, by Teddy K himself -- not a bad stage prop for an audience of Democrats.

Political mavens tend to exaggerate the significance of staff, who are often described as geniuses when their candidates prosper. But it is unlikely that Joe Trippi's IQ declined by 50 points in the last month as Dean's front-runnerdom dribbled away. Candidates, not campaign mangers, win or lose elections. And even the biggest stars can only help contenders who will help themselves. Having Ted Kennedy warm up the crowd may have inspired better oratory from John Kerry. But Kennedy warmed up crowds in 1972 for George McGovern, and a fat lot of good it did him.

Still, there has to be some connection between the new campaign chiefs and the sharper focus of Kerry's campaigning. "Focus" happens to be a word often used to describe Cahill. It was after she joined the campaign that Kerry began to talk "from his gut," as he likes to say, to ignore attacks from the other candidates and to stop answering questions about strategy.

"There was some spark there," Yepsen said, "some electricity, some juice in the Kerry campaign. He had two very effective lines: 'Don't send a message; send a president,' aimed at Dean, and 'I know something about aircraft carriers for real,' directed at [George W.] Bush."

Some of the luck came from Iraq. Saddam Hussein's capture seemed to make the war a less salient issue, reducing the number of times Kerry had to offer his tortured explanation of how he had voted for the war resolution without really intending to give President Bush the authority to go to war.

The rest of it came from Dean, who started to say things he shouldn't have. That didn't shake his core supporters, but it made undecided voters think twice. Just as they were reconsidering, Kerry was campaigning better. The entrance polls indicated that Kerry got a plurality of the late deciders.

In addition to campaigning better, he may have been feeling better, too. Kerry had prostate cancer surgery last February, and he returned to the campaign trail a mere month later. That may have been too soon. Harry Pinchot, the program director for the Prostate Cancer Research Institute in Los Angeles, said that, under ideal conditions, it takes at least four or five months for a patient to "get back to full stride" after such surgery.
What's more, John Kerry has a big head and a long face. Drawn and pinched by pain and fatigue, such a face can appear, well, cadaverous. For much of the summer and fall, Kerry simply didn't look good. As he has gotten stronger, his face has filled out, his eyes have recovered their twinkle. Americans like healthy presidents.
Kerry remains a long way from becoming president. If he does, though, watch his inaugural parade. Somewhere in there among the American Legionnaires, the high-school bands and the Army drill teams, you'll see a company or two of Iowa volunteer firefighters, stepping out smartly.

Jon Margolis, a former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964.