Still, he tapped into a powerful anti-Bush movement sweeping big cities and college campuses around the country. He shattered party fundraising records and did what many once considered impossible -- eliminating the Republicans' historical edge in fundraising.
But for much of the year, Kerry offered contradictory views on Iraq, saying he supported the war but frequently criticizing it. In one of the most memorable -- and damaging -- lines of the campaign, Kerry seemed to capture the confusion by telling West Virginia voters in March, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." He was referring to money for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I'm sorry that we got here a little bit late and a little bit short," Democratic nominee John F. Kerry tells supporters in his concession speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
The line became a staple of Bush ads and speeches, and it allowed the Bush-Cheney campaign to effectively portray Kerry as an indecisive leader. Still, with casualties and chaos mounting in Iraq, Kerry ran even or ahead of Bush for much of the year and never felt pressured to changes his style or message.
Kerry told aides that as long as he could convince voters during the Democratic convention in July that he was an able and acceptable alternative to Bush as commander in chief, he could win. By that measure, Kerry's convention was a wild success, and he was widely praised for delivering a strong speech on national security, war service and patriotism. But he never made an effective case for Bush's defeat or an alternative direction on domestic policy.
The speech also has an unintended consequence. It opened the door for critics led by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to challenge the Democratic nominee's service in Vietnam and leadership role in the antiwar protests in the 1970s.
In a matter of a few weeks in August, the anti-Kerry veterans dominated cable news -- and, in some ways the campaign -- with relentless attacks on Kerry's credibility, providing the president a lift in the polls and forcing the Democrat to rethink his approach.
Kerry regained footing in September, in large part, by bringing in some of former president Bill Clinton's most talented advisers, sharpening his attacks and turning in what both sides considered powerful debate performances. He closed out the race with a relentless attack on Bush's credibility, decision making in Iraq and ability to win the war on terrorism -- and, all along, reassured aides this was what it would take to win.
By week's end, polling indicated, his strategy may have been working, as Kerry looked to be inching forward. Exit polls on Election Day showed Kerry leading in battleground states. When Kerry and Shrum rode to Kerry's house Tuesday night, after the candidate gave 38 eleventh-hour interviews to media in battleground states, Shrum told him, "I think you're going to make it." The two began drafting a victory speech -- but also a statement conceding the race to Bush.
Several hours later, the exuberance that gripped the campaign gave way to hours of grim assessments and high anxiety. Shrum said he started to get a "sinking feeling" when it became apparent that Republicans were showing strength in Florida and Ohio -- states that looked winnable earlier.
Senior campaign officials worked the phones all night, and by the final 8 a.m. staff meeting Wednesday the message was unmistakable. "We looked at the numbers, talked to people, in Ohio, talked to lawyers. . . . And it became clear that the likelihood of the provisional ballots exceeding the margin [they needed to win] was exceedingly low," adviser Tad Devine said.
Mostly everyone at Faneuil Hall seemed in a daze, not understanding how their assessments were so wrong. "Obviously, we missed something here," said Kerry's closest friend, David Thorne.
After the speech, many key staff members adjourned to a nearby Irish bar, Ned Devine's, to commiserate.
As for himself, Kerry offered no regrets:
"So with a grateful heart, I leave this campaign with a prayer that has even greater meaning to me now. And that prayer is very simple: God bless America."