November was not kind to John Kerry. The Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential hopeful got the kind of media ink that campaign press secretaries dread. To wit: "Kerry Fires Campaign Manager; Democrat, Lagging Behind Dean, Hopes to Redirect Candidacy" (The Washington Post, Nov. 11); "Kerry Tries to Rejuvenate His Faltering Campaign" (USA Today, Nov. 24); "Storied Past, Golden Resume, But Mixed Reviews for Kerry" (The New York Times, Nov. 30).
What has happened to a candidate that many assumed would be comfortably leading the crowded field at this point? Well, a number of things. For one, Kerry peaked too early. As I noted (here) in March, Kerry's status as the early front-runner was not necessarily a benefit to his campaign. Like Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry earned early praise from the press and some political operatives. But whereas Edwards never really went anywhere, Kerry failed to protect his lead. His campaign didn't take former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) seriously until it was too late, and Dean himself had become the front-runner.
For another thing, Kerry has relied too much on his Vietnam biography. A candidate's wartime service doesn't carry the same weight it did in campaigns, say, 15 years ago (despite the putative value such service would hold in post-September 11 America). In the last three elections, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush won the White House even though neither served in Vietnam (though both were eligible to go). Clinton beat out two World War II veterans, George Bush Senior and Bob Dole, while Bush defeated Al Gore, who did go to Vietnam. Most of Kerry's Democratic opponents, including Dean, did not see combat overseas. While Americans no doubt honor and appreciate the courage Kerry showed there, Vietnam is not the defining political issue it once was. Kerry needs to talk about more recent events in his life that will help him connect with the millions of voting Americans who aren't old enough to remember Vietnam.
Kerry is also "uneven" on the campaign trail, as The New York Times' Todd Purdum noted in his piece this past Sunday. Kerry doesn't convey the passion that Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) have brought to their campaigns by riling up audiences with angry attacks on the Bush administration. Kerry's anger is less impulsive, more subdued, more nuanced. Kerry is passionate about plenty of topics; for example, he's been a leader in the Senate on the environment and is a legitimate expert on matters of national security. But if he continues to deliver speeches as though he's addressing his colleagues on the Senate floor rather than as if his professional career and the country's future hinge on how he well he does, he'll stay at the legislative end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Then there's the problem of Teresa Heinz Kerry. Despite the fact that Kerry says he doesn't want to rein in his outspoken wife, she had two handlers sitting with her during a recent Times interview. That's because she's said things in the past -- in favor of prenuptial agreements and Botox injections, for instance -- that have caused heartburn for the campaign. A spouse can be a huge asset on the campaign trail. He (or she) can increase the number of voters a candidate reaches by making appearances on behalf of a spouse, while also compensating for perceived flaws in a candidate's character (being warm if, for example, the candidate is seen as aloof). But Teresa Heinz Kerry's brash style has merely distracted from the substance of John Kerry's campaign. She should play a more low-key role until the primaries are over.
And speaking of aloof, everyone knows about Kerry's problem in that department; the bigger issue is that he's only made it worse. When he had surgery for prostate cancer earlier this year, Kerry joked that doctors also planned to remove his "aloof gland." Apparently they didn't. Voters without strong party identifications often make a decision about which candidate to support based on a gut instinct about the contender's personality. Kerry would be a great dinner companion at an Oxford debating society soiree, but can you really see him in the nosebleed section at a ballpark with a beer and hot dog? Kerry's efforts to appear more regular -- by riding a motorcycle onto the set of The Tonight Show and playing guitar with Moby -- have been incredibly awkward and have only called attention to the perception that he is aloof. He needs a more successful humanizing moment -- a la the Al and Tipper Gore marathon kiss -- to help voters see him as a down-to-earth guy.
Kerry also needs to rely less on his advisers. He has the same problem that plagued Gore's 2000 campaign: Advisers have frequently split on what strategies to adopt, such as, in Kerry's case, whether the candidate should have gone after Dean more aggressively earlier in the campaign. As a result, several of Kerry's top advisers, like Gore's, have left (and some have joined rival candidates' campaigns). Kerry should make sure all his aides are putting his interests first, rather than using his campaign as a way to buff up their résumés. He also needs to trust the instincts he's developed during two decades in politics. He didn't, after all, get this far just by luck.
It's not too late for Kerry to rejuvenate his candidacy. But with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary next month, he needs to do it soon. Otherwise, all that will be remembered about John Kerry's presidential run is how a once-promising campaign fizzled into obscurity.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.