Crowd Control

NASHUA, N.H. --

He's got the experience, the Lincoln-like elongation, the Kennedy-esque turns of phrase, the environmental activists attesting to his record, and the guys from his gunboat attesting to his guts. But can John Kerry campaign?

We'll know soon enough -- tonight, actually -- just how he impressed the citizens of New Hampshire. Another strong victory, coupled with last week's out-of-nowhere triumph in Iowa, will mean Kerry has a commanding lead on the Democratic field. But it will also mark something of a victory of John Kerry over John Kerry.

For Kerry is not exactly a born campaigner. In this field, the campaigner with all the moves is John Edwards, who states his case as flawlessly and powerfully as he did to countless Carolina juries. Edwards held his penultimate rally Monday night at the Hudson Theater in downtown Manchester, and I had the good fortune to watch him from the balcony, to see him glide around the stage with the kind of ease and intensity that comes from decades of practice. Edwards has an inner choreographer, so wholly fused are his gestures with his words.

If John Kerry ever had an inner choreographer, he or she up and left a long time ago. There is something stiff in Kerry's turns as he answers questions in the middle of high-school gyms and fire stations. Public displays of vulnerability -- which, when campaigning among Democrats, is something you're bound to encounter among questioners at nearly every stop -- clearly make him a bit embarrassed, I think, for the questioner. During Kerry's final stop on what had been a triumphal Sunday, a woman spoke haltingly of having her supplementary security income and her food-stamp allowance reduced. Kerry began by responding to her, but turned suddenly to the people sitting on the other side of the gym, decrying the cutbacks in essential programs that George W. Bush has inflicted. "You look for the words to express your outrage at this administration," he said with an indignant snap in his voice, and quickly laid out the way he'd restore funding for SSI, Medicaid, and a range of necessities on which Bush has bailed.

It's not Bill Clinton, that's for sure. During one visit to a senior's home in Nashua during the crazy week of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Clinton, reeling from the Gennifer Flowers revelations and the release of 25-year-old correspondence on his draft-deferment, encountered a similar questioner, a woman who had to choose between medications for her husband and food for them both. She started crying, and he knelt down beside her and hugged her. Then he stood and, his voice rising with him, powerfully made the case for universal health insurance. His response was stunning in its emotional and political adeptness and range, and it was one of the first defining glances that the press had of Clinton the campaigner.

So Kerry's no Clinton, but who is? Then again, on Kerry's glorious Sunday, when his lead in the tracking polls over Howard Dean was at its height (it declined some on Monday), he did display one Clintonian attribute. Rolling from event to event, he got better as day turned into night, until, by the final event, he was as "on" as I've ever heard him. (Clinton was always better in the afternoon than in the morning, and in the evening than in the afternoon.) Kerry's answers grew both crisper and looser, epitomizing the progress he's made in his ongoing battle against complexity and convolution.

Part of Kerry's style is designed to showcase his presidentiality. If the stakes are seen as high, if the job is seen as the supreme challenge, then he's the guy you turn to for president, and he repeatedly invokes the Cold War cadences of John F. Kennedy. "All the world is looking at you," he says at stop after stop. "You are not just electing the president of the United States; you are electing the leader of the free world!" In a clear echo of Kennedy, he begins his sentences with rhetorical devices that set off the quotes to follow, most notably, "And so I say … ."

All of which is fine, but sometimes it's hard for Kerry to come down from the rarefied atmosphere of high policy and purpose. Complexity is a temptation he succumbs to on questions of trade and the economy, and rhetorically, some of his punch lines are elongated to the point where they cease to punch. Bush may rightly unfurl a "Mission Accomplished" banner to celebrate his favors for his wealthy buddies, Kerry says in speech after speech, but when it comes to doing something to help middle- and working-class Americans, "it's Mission Abandoned!" Except, often, before that, it's also, "Mission Not Even Legitimately Attempted!" The man needs Ernest Hemingway to edit out his adverbs.

Can Kerry develop the discipline to be more casual, less stilted, more connected to his crowds? On Sunday, at least, he was on a roll. He started at a huge rally in a Nashua high-school gym, with 2,500 supporters and candidate-shoppers out to see Kerry and Ted Kennedy and Patrick Kennedy and Teresa Heinz and one of her sons (who did a wicked Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation); it was a celebration of Democratic royal families that was altogether disarming ("All right, not bad!" Teddy shouted after his son's talk. "Way to go, Patrick!").

It was the warmest of rallies, and Kerry was loose. He got looser at each successive stop until, by the final stop at the final gym, he gave succinct explanations to complicated questions -- for instance, how the federal government picking up catastrophic-care insurance could go a long way toward solving the crisis of rising costs in medicine. Better still, Kerry more and more often gave brief narrative summations of his programs, referring questioners to his Web site for the details. Best of all, approaching the fourth iteration of the day, with the polls a pleasing prospect and the crowds shouting their support, Kerry decided that the mission was best described as simply abandoned. The legitimacy of the attempt would just have to go unevaluated.

There's a time and a place for nuance, after all, but a campaign wrap-up rally ain't it.

Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.

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