Things seem to be going well for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The presidential candidate has returned to the campaign trail after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. He's weathered his first crisis by straightforwardly addressing questions about his health scare and whether he lied to a reporter about it. And he's been making fundraising forays in states -- such as California and New York -- that are rich in both cash and electoral votes.
Kerry has also been the subject of numerous recent profiles, in magazines from Vogue to Time to the Prospect. For the moment at least, there seems to be little disagreement among pundits and journalists that Kerry is the front-runner for the 2004 nomination.
But this news comes with a worrisome question for the Kerry campaign: Is its candidate peaking too early? After all, the Democratic primaries and caucuses aren't for another 10 months, and the election is more than a year and a half away. The puff pieces are no doubt going to be replaced by negative stories at some point.
Peaking too early is a danger in any campaign. Sure, every candidate wants voters and, more importantly, party activists to know who he is. It helps him raise money, and gives the sense that his campaign has a certain inevitability about it. But there's an advantage to building the strength of a campaign behind the scenes early in an election cycle. The public glare that accompanies party front-runner status doesn't always provide the best conditions for a candidate to fine-tune his message or learn how to deal with the national media. As a result, it can be easier for a candidate to burst onto the scene -- message and media skills fully formed -- somewhat later in the game rather than enduring a tortured evolution in front of the national spotlight.
The campaign of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has already provided a cautionary tale of what can happen. In 2001, Edwards was the media darling, making frequent appearances on the Sunday talk shows and showing up in such magazines as New York, Time and Elle, which called him "The New (Improved) Al Gore." Then came his disappointing appearance on Meet the Press and a number of articles questioning whether his candidacy had been overrated. But the proverbial nail in the coffin for Edwards could be former President Clinton's comments in an interview with James Fallows in this month's Atlantic Monthly. As Clinton said, according to a transcript on the Atlantic Web site, "I told him: John, you're great on TV. You make a great talk. You can talk an owl out of a tree. But my opinion is, presidential elections are won by the strength of the candidate, and having a network of support, and then by the mega message, having the big message." In other words, Edwards looked and sounded good -- but there wasn't much substance behind his words and image.
After Edwards flamed out the media's attention turned back to former Vice President Al Gore -- and when Gore decided not to run, it centered on Kerry. Of course, being the front-runner brings certain advantages, like the ability to raise money more easily and hire top strategists. It gives a candidate momentum -- the "Big Mo" as George Bush Senior once said. But sustaining that momentum over a long period goes against everything the press, especially the political press, is about. Sure, we'll write the happy stories to introduce a candidate to the voters. But then, searching for a new angle and aided by opposition researchers for other candidates, we'll turn around and write the gotcha stories. (Think Gennifer Flowers in 1992.)
Does all this mean that Kerry should be trying to stop the media's rush to dub him the front-runner? It's a moot question, really, because, put simply, he can't. It's too late. Whether he likes it or not, he will have to maintain his front-runner status for the next 10 months -- a tall order, indeed (though he may be helped by the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the other Democratic candidates). Still, there are some things Kerry can do to avoid Edwards' fate.
First, he should not be ubiquitous. All of the presidential hopefuls make for good TV; we want to learn more about them and what they stand for. But as Edwards learned on Meet the Press, agreeing to one too many interview requests can have negative consequences. Plus, you don't want to overexpose yourself now and have people be tired of you by the time it really counts. Instead, pick and choose which shows you'll appear on, making sure they're the ones that can give you the greatest boost. It's better, after all, to be interviewed by Larry King than by Mike Wallace.
Second, get rid of bad news quickly. Kerry has already demonstrated that he can deal with a negative story. He answered questions about his prostate cancer elegantly -- and, more importantly, he made it a one-day story by providing the facts all at once rather than having them come out slowly.
Third, don't give the media a chance to form a negative story line. This is what happened to Gore in 2000. The press hooked onto the idea that he was a constant exaggerator and that he didn't know who he was. Gore didn't help himself by repeating mistakes and thus reinforcing the media's image of him. Once you look like an exaggerator (Gore) or an idiot (Dan Quayle), it's hard to get the media to change their tune.
Fourth, treat the press nicely. In her documentary on the 2000 campaign, Alexandra Pelosi got plenty of face time with George W. Bush, and he came across as a likable guy. This from the daughter of the House minority leader who's trying to block Bush's agenda on Capitol Hill.
Fifth, have a plan. Clinton's complaint was that Edwards hasn't fully fleshed out his campaign ideas. That shouldn't be as much of a problem for Kerry, who's in his fourth Senate term. But this is always a difficult situation for a candidate who faces a crowded primary field and has to go to his base early -- before courting independent voters in the general election.
The early primary dates for this election will make being the front-runner a particular challenge: Voters will have an even longer time to hear about the candidates in 2004 than they did in 2000, which means a longer time for the press to dig up and report negative information. And because the Democratic nominee is likely to be determined by early March, he'll get a lot of scrutiny in the months leading up to the convention, not to mention in the months between Labor Day and election day. Being the front-runner is full of potential pitfalls, not least of which is that everyone wants to tear you down. At the same time, as difficult as front-runner status can be, your opponent is lying if he says he wouldn't trade places with you: Being the front-runner always beats being the alternative.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.