They were once the fiercest of rivals, the refined senator from Massachusetts and the scrappy ex-governor of Vermont, but for 24 hours this week, John F. Kerry and Howard Dean made it look as if they were the best of friends.
The two Democrats campaigned together in Portland, Ore., traded notes on health care and played cards on Kerry's plane, and for nearly an hour fielded questions together from reporters on a long flight back to Washington on Tuesday evening.
Their candidacies moved like opposite ends of a teeter-totter through much of last year and in the early months of this year, with Kerry initially seen as the front runner for the Democratic nomination, only to be eclipsed by the energy and passion generated by Dean's antiwar candidacy. When Dean stumbled at the end of last year, Kerry eclipsed him, upsetting Dean in Iowa and cruising to the nomination.
If Dean harbored any bitterness over what happened to him, he did not show it as the two chatted with reporters, with Dean volunteering his admiration for what Kerry had accomplished.
"I certainly admired you for kicking my [expletive] in Iowa," Dean said to roars of laughter and a quick high-five from the victor.
Dean is still the more exuberant, Kerry the more restrained. The former governor has shed some of the weight he gained during a campaign that saw him running flat out on a diet consisting almost exclusively of junk food. Kerry has gained back some of the weight he lost during a stressful fall, in which his campaign seemed all-but-doomed to even some of his own supporters.
During the primaries they fought over tax cuts for the middle class, free trade and especially the war in Iraq, with Dean denouncing Kerry for supporting the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war unilaterally if he chose.
Aboard the Kerry charter, Dean said, "You know, there wasn't a helluva lot of difference in all our platforms, really."
Earlier, at a campaign event in Portland, Kerry had praised Dean for having "helped to focus the conversation" of the campaign in a way others had not. Asked what he meant, Kerry began by saying that his own campaign is still running on the principles and ideas he first enunciated in December 2002, when he announced that he would become a candidate. "But I think Howard was the first person after that to sort of publicly break through," Kerry said. "And that helped to shift the dynamic. It's just a reality. And it was very helpful. It changed the way the next weeks and months of our discussion went on."
A reporter suggested that Kerry's stump speech now contains elements that once were part of Dean's and asked whether Dean had "raised the bar" on Kerry's performance. "I think everybody did," Kerry said. "I think he did, but I think the whole process does. I think running for president requires that. I learned a lot. I readily admitted that; said it in Iowa, said it in New Hampshire. I'm still learning a lot. I'm still working at being a better candidate. I think I am. I think we're getting there. You know, you've just got to keep working at it. If you don't [keep] learning this business every single day you've got to get out of it."
Kerry then described watching a tape of one of his recent campaign events and being unhappy with what he saw. "I just felt that I could have communicated more effectively," he said without explanation.
Dean then picked up the thread of the conversation. "You want to make yourself feel good though -- I've done this on our stuff -- you look at the tapes when you first started," he said. "It's unbelievable. It is amazing. I knew this was a growth experience but I didn't realize how much until I went back."
Dean was standing in the aisle of the plane, surrounded by reporters with their digital recorders straining to retrieve the words over the din of the engines. Kerry was seated in the adjacent row, calmly listening.
Dean, whose mouth often got him into trouble when he was a candidate, continued: "You remember the South Carolina debate, which was a disaster for both of us. It was the very first debate out of the box, when was it, a year ago? I looked at that and just went, 'Oh, man.'" Kerry's face remained impassive, offering no hint that he either agreed with or appreciated Dean's assessment of that debate, in which the two had tangled publicly for the first time, with both the poorer for the effort.