Kerry, Speaking Softly About the Big Stick
"If Democrats wanted a screamer, we would have nominated Howard Dean," said Mickey Rodriguez, an unemployed teacher at the Kerry rally at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
"I'm not here to attack. I'm not here to tear down," Kerry said at the rally. "I'm not here to create a partisan divide between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. Throw the labels away. Just think for a moment." He was all about "common sense, not ideology." It was a palpable echo of "This election is not about ideology, it's about competence," in the words -- some say epitaph -- of Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Kerry's attacks on the administration have been muted and subtle. En route to the West Palm Beach airport, Kerry met Joey Balboa, a local Democrat, who urged him to be more direct and feisty.
"Don't be afraid to call this president what he is," Balboa told Kerry, to which Kerry replied, "We're trying to be civil in our discussions."
There will be no open-mike mishaps as there was in March when Kerry called the Bush administration "the most crooked . . . lying group I've ever seen."
Now, Kerry says he is actually rooting for Bush. "I want the president to be successful," he said during a news conference in Tampa. He said this twice.
Making Points Not News
Even if Kerry were in dogfight mode, it's unlikely that he could hurt Bush more than events are. "The manipulative process of campaigns has been completely overwhelmed by the top stories," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist and longtime adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt. By this, Carrick means casualties in Iraq, the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet and the continued threat of terrorist attacks here and abroad. The Bush campaign, Carrick said, "thought Kerry would be chopped meat by now. They expected to have defined him. Instead, they're playing defense, and Kerry is surviving."
The campaign is in a natural period of ebb. Excessive political noise would likely fall on deaf ears anyway. "The audience is small," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former presidential candidate who accompanied Kerry during part of his Florida swing. "People are focused on their summer plans, not presidential politics." Graham, who was interviewed before Reagan's death, said Kerry is trying to establish credibility with opinion makers and "local molders of influence." The Democratic base has been unified -- less by Kerry than by Bush himself. Graham says this is Kerry's time to stay slightly below the radar and talk in great detail on matters of grave importance.
"The number of Americans who will sit down and think seriously about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists is not large," Graham said.
Yet Kerry had just completed a speech about same at the Port of West Palm Beach. He spoke while standing before a flag-draped tanker, surrounded by boxy cargo containers -- the kinds of things that demand better inspection amid the specter of catastrophic weaponry. Osama bin Laden, Kerry pointed out, has said that obtaining such weapons is a "sacred duty."
"As president, my number one security goal will be to prevent terrorists from gaining weapons of mass murder," Kerry said. He said he will create an office in the White House charged with tracking down and securing unaccounted-for nuclear weapons around the world. He vowed to do this during his first term, a goal called "simplistic and naive" by the Bush campaign.
Kerry's 30-minute speech was detailed and, in the 95-degree heat, punishing. The audience includes 300 people -- invited guests, local Kerry supporters and a smattering of port workers and "first responders" (hospital workers, firefighters, EMTs). At one point, a man in the audience collapsed from heat exhaustion and several first responders hauled him into an ambulance. Several other people left the event early under their own power.
As a general rule, speeches about loose nukes don't lend themselves to applause lines. When Kerry chanted a series of stem-winding questions -- "Have we reached out to our allies and forged an urgent global effort to ensure that nuclear weapons and materials are secured?" -- he drew only a smattering of halfhearted "Noooooo's" from the crowd.
But the local TV coverage was plentiful and the crowd received Kerry well -- as invited crowds tend to do. "I'm a Kerry guy," Tony Zambello of Lake Park said after the speech. "But Bush is the one I'm voting on this year," meaning against. Kerry's speech was okay "for a hot day," Zambello said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company