Primary Colors

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Turns out that not only can John Kerry skate pretty well, he can even play some hockey. Not as well as the former Boston Bruins and (female) Olympic stars with whom he was zipping around the ice here the other day, but the defense really did seem to be trying to stop the second of his two attempts. Yet he managed to slip it into the net anyway.

Wearing a dark blue University of New Hampshire hockey jersey with "Kerry '04" across its front, the restored front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination stood at center ice before the faceoff and talked for a moment about what hockey, and the Bruins, meant to "those of us who were kids and who grew up in New England."

That won't do him any good in Missouri, the next place he has to convince Democratic voters that not only is he the Democrat who can beat George W. Bush, he's a regular guy as well. Few Missouri Democrats grew up in New England, and when John Kerry was a kid the St. Louis Blues did not yet exist.

The Saturday afternoon event at the conveniently named John F. Kennedy Arena helped Kerry with the regular-guy argument while the stumbling of all his opponents but one took care of his case for electability. The one was John Edwards, who could end up being the last man Kerry has to beat (or get beaten by) despite his dreary showing in New Hampshire.

At least Edwards has some potential. He has a message, he delivers it well, and it might resonate with Democratic primary voters. So he is as likely as anyone to be the beneficiary of the "anybody but Kerry" movement that began Tuesday night as soon as the exit-poll results were announced, even before Kerry made his second uninspired, overlong victory statement in as many weeks.

Kerry knew Edwards could gain some ground. So in the last days of the New Hampshire campaign, Kerry added Washington lobbyists to the list of special-interest enemies of the people that his presidency would contain. He wasn't as vivid or as specific as Edwards, who said he would "cut the lobbyists off at the knees" and ban former government officials from going into the lobbying racket. But it might be enough to blunt the appeal of Edwards' aw-shucks populism.

Meanwhile, Kerry still has two older problems: his aloofness and that pesky Howard Dean, who was not quite put away for good in New Hampshire. Dean actually claimed that his second-place finish "allowed our campaign to regain its momentum." As denial goes, this pales beside Joe Lieberman, who described his fifth-place finish as part of a three-way tie for third. Exit polls indicated that Lieberman did come in third among one
constituency: Jews, who were more likely to vote for Kerry or Wesley Clark than America's first shomer Shabbat presidential candidate. There is not a word in English to describe Lieberman's insistence that his loss here entitles him to soldier on. Happily, Yiddish provides us with "chutzpah."

Hard as it is to argue that losing by 12 points when you were once 20 points ahead amounts to regaining momentum, Dean still has a constituency, some money, and determination (or stubbornness, as it is sometimes known). He also caught a break when, a few days before the voting, the news revived Democratic memories about how there really weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all.

"Where was John Kerry when George Bush was giving out all this misinformation?" Dean asked. "Foreign-policy experience depends on patience and judgment. I question Senator Kerry's judgment." Kerry dismissed this critique for being "negative." But dismissal is not refutation.

Then again, winners don't have to refute anything, and Kerry is the only Democratic winner so far. It would be rash to say that he has the nomination wrapped up because it is still too early and because he is still John Kerry, a man some people do not like, finding him either a snob or a phony who has changed his mind several times over the years.

Changing one's mind over the years could, of course, indicate thoughtfulness as much as phoniness, and Kerry is hardly the only son of wealth -- St. Paul's School, Yale University and all that -- to try, sometimes clumsily, to be one of the guys. Phoniness is the least challenging accusation for the accuser, being as irrefutable as it is unprovable. He who cries phony, in other words, may well be.

Kerry would have to be quite a good phony indeed to have fooled all those old shipmates and other veterans, many of them disabled, who are campaigning with him. For Democrats, the most optimistic sight at the Kerry victory rally were the two signs held aloft by supporters standing side by side: "Environmentalists for Kerry" and "Veterans for Kerry." They reflected the breadth of his support here, where he carried both working-class and upper-crust neighborhoods. He won every ward in Manchester, but he also took Concord. Sure, he lost Hanover to Dean. But not by much.

There was at least one other sign that some folks who have been less than fond of John Kerry are coming 'round to him. The day after the hockey game, Kerry went to Nashua, where his senior colleague, Ted Kennedy, introduced him to a raucous rally in a high-school gym.

To understate the case, the two have not been the best of friends, but Kennedy here was giving Kerry more than his support; he was giving him his blessing.

"On this very day, President [John F.] Kennedy announced his candidacy for the presidency of the Unite States in Nashua, New Hampshire," Kennedy said, and a minute later he pointed into the audience to Jim Rassmann, the sailor Lieutenant Kerry had pulled from a Vietnamese river back in the '60s. Kennedy let the story stand on its own, but it is unlikely to the point of impossible not to believe that in his own mind he was making the connection with another young officer who would not let his crewmen drown.

For all this laying on of hands, Kennedy's Nashua performance also exposed Kerry's weakness. Overweight, florid-faced, his shirttail hanging out of his pants in back, Teddy the K still gave the best speech of the rally. He can make a crowd laugh and clap merely by growling in that booming voice, "All right, not bad," or by introducing the main speaker as "Johhhhhhhnnnnnn Kerry!"

What delights the crowd is that everyone knows that Kennedy is making fun of himself. This is a very Kennedy thing to do. It is not a very Kerry thing to do. But then it is not a very Dean, Edwards, Clark, Lieberman, or Bush thing to do, either. Come to think of it, even the comedians don't make fun of themselves these days. Perhaps the very nostalgia for self-deprecation is archaic.

Meanwhile, John Kerry is 2-0 while everybody else is 0-2. After the seven games next week, he is likely to be at least 6-3, possibly better. That is probably not enough to teach him to make sport of himself, but perhaps he could learn to make a half-decent victory speech.

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