1. Conventional wisdom rules. John Kerry started out the front-runner, according to the political handicappers. And largely because of the same reasons that he was initially dubbed the guy-to-beat, he ended up the front-runner, winning nine of ten contests on Super Tuesday. The no-longer-running Howard Dean finally won a state: Vermont. Kerry was the safe choice. Democrats went for a fellow who was not too young, not too fiery, not too bold, not too flashy; they selected a solid, workhorse Democrat who is mostly liberal but who is no rip-roaring populist. He has the experience and the gravitas–perhaps too much gravitas–to be president. Some observers have likened Kerry to the dead-man-walking Bob Dole of 1996, but Kerry, who could use a jolt of Dole-like humor, is much more a fighter. Don’t forget he was a crusading prosecutor before becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Which brings us to the next point.
2. A million cuts. A journalist called me the other day to ask what would be the most perilous time for Kerry between now and the convention. My answer: every day. It’s clear the Bush campaign strategy is to nick away at Kerry 24/7. They will go over the thousands of votes Kerry has cast and use them as ammunition, accusing him of voting to weaken national defense and supporting wacko liberal positions. This has already started. The White House and the GOP have cited long-ago votes against certain weapons systems as evidence Kerry cannot be trusted to safeguard America. Recently Fred Kaplan on Slate debunked much of this early attack. A good example he cited: Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie slammed Kerry for having voted to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget in 1995. But this money was appropriated for a spy satellite that the National Reconnaissance Office never launched. And the Senate was voting to rescind these funds, which were not going to be used. A majority of the Senate supported this position. But facts don’t matter. The goal of the GOP is to turn Kerry into a bleeder. To force him to explain his votes and past positions over and over–and then again. Even if he has reasonable explanations, he still could end up looking weak if he constantly has to defend his past actions. Kerry is going to have to find a way to answer the attacks without becoming too entangled in a charge-countercharge dance. He has to avoid appearing as if he has lots of ‘splaining to do, but he also cannot let criticism go unanswered. This will not be easy. His top aides tell me that they are ready for the Bush assault. But they are only now in the process of creating a war-room type of operation to deal with the incoming.
3. After 9/11, grown-ups are wanted. John Edwards ran a swell campaign. He had the best speech of all the candidates. (“There are two Americas….”) He had the best temperament. And he has plenty of brains beneath his golden locks. But he couldn’t seal the deal. He didn’t even come close. It was not because of his ideas; he had few policy differences with Kerry. It was not because he didn’t have the funds to make himself and his positions known to primary voters. It was probably because in this post-9/11 period he did not come across as ready-to-lead. He has not finished his first term in the Senate; he had no previous experience in government or foreign policy. He talked–at length!–about sharing the values of the working class (having been the son of a mill worker before becoming a millionaire trial attorney) and understanding their lives (presumably in a way that the blue-blooded Kerry could not). But empathy only goes so far. It’s not the same as inspiring confidence and reassurance. And it could well be that Democratic voters in 2004 wanted a candidate who reeks of maturity and experience. Edwards was confronted by a stature gap–and the gap won. After 9/11, protector-in-chief is at the top of the list of the president’s job responsibilities. Edwards was not able to persuade voters he yet has the chops for that.