Shifting Within Party To Gain His Footing
Now high up in the Democratic establishment, Kerry began seeking national attention for speeches in which he styled himself again as an outsider -- this time pushing from the inside out -- criticizing his own party as well as Republicans as captives of old doctrines.
His first venture on this path had come in 1992, in a speech criticizing affirmative action as stoking white resentment of blacks. He dropped the subject amid a fierce backlash from African Americans accusing him of pandering to conservative whites.
In 1996, Kerry won his toughest reelection against then-Gov. William H. Weld (R) in the nation's most closely watched Senate race. Remarkably popular for a Massachusetts Republican, Weld was a fiscal conservative and civil libertarian whose self-mocking charm was expected to play well against Kerry's dead-seriousness. Yet a series of eight debates televised statewide left the dead-serious guy in the lead.
"In terms of effectiveness as a debater, he's as good as it gets," Weld said. "Like the Minnesota Vikings defense in the old days, he'll bend but he'll never break."
Weld attributed his loss to Kerry's success nationalizing the election as Clinton carried Massachusetts by 33 percentage points over Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole. Kerry, who won by 7 percent, had used each debate to hammer the moderate Weld, over his protests, as a Republican in the mold of the increasingly unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
But many of Kerry's supporters insist that voters connected with something in Kerry that he never put into words.
"The inner person named Kerry is revealed only in moments of conflict and great stress," said Chris Gregory, a Vietnam veteran and friend since the antiwar movement who has worked in all of Kerry's campaigns. "Every time he gets elected, it's the same deal. His campaigns are wars. He goes straight at the other guy, and the voters have to ask who's more disciplined, who's more durable, who's more honest, who's more intelligent, who's more faithful, who's the better man? None of those things does he personify, but in comparison to someone else, it's Kerry."
Soon after his reelection, Kerry began preparing a challenge to then-Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000. His plan was to run as an outsider, portraying Gore as a captive of interest groups.
Laying the foundation, he took on a premier Democratic interest group in 1998 -- teachers unions -- in a speech calling for "an end to tenure as we know it." (He said nothing about tenure in this year's primaries.)
In the end, Kerry sat out the 2000 race, watching former senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) run from the outside and get crushed in his bid for the Democratic nomination. Kerry drew his own lessons from the outcome.
"Bradley had a surge early on, and it looked like he could break through, and John was attracted to the energy and the outsiderness and the press buzz," said Jim Jordan, then a Kerry staffer and the first manager of his 2004 campaign. "And he saw how Gore gradually ground Bradley down into dust with sheer mass. As attracted as John always is to outsider-movement-energy politics, he saw the value in heft."
Kerry declared his candidacy for president in 2002, and -- as a war veteran with extensive foreign policy experience -- was immediately deemed the front-runner in a country transformed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Kerry said he made his decision two weeks after the 2002 congressional elections, in which Republicans gained ground by attacking Democrats as soft on national security. "I just said this can't go on this way. And we started to take off, and we were doing great until something called the War in Iraq."
Having won the battle for the Democratic nomination, Kerry now faces the war -- the one for the White House but also the one in Iraq. To those who have known him throughout his political career, it seems fitting that Kerry's presidential candidacy rests in part on whether he can resolve a tension -- in this case, between his opposition to the course of the war in Iraq and his own vote to authorize it, followed by his vote against $87 billion to supply the troops.
To Adam Walinsky, who met and became close to Kerry in the antiwar movement, this is the candidate's defining moment. How he explains his vote for the war is less important, in Walinsky's view, than how Kerry weaves the many strands of his life and career into a narrative that allows voters to understand him.
"All those questions will be in front of him: the movement politician versus the centrist, the person who leads with his gut versus the person who leads with calculation, the man in full bloom or the man restrained by caution," Walinsky said. "And therefore he will discover many things about himself in this race because he will be called upon to declare himself in a way he never has had to before."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company