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The Kerry Camp, Cautiously Giddy

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C01


Mario Cuomo was glowing after John Kerry's Iraq speech Monday at New York University: "Great! Excellent! Masterful!" raved the former New York governor, who sat near the front. "He's never been clearer. He's turning this thing around."

And then, just as his handlers hustled him away, Cuomo turned to yell a few words of advice over his shoulder: "Now what he needs to do is be specific, hard, truthful, do more of the same."

(Gerald Herbert -- AP)

It's a tic that Kerry seems to invite with his endless searching and questing. In Kerryland, every supporter feels entitled to act as a mini-Joe Lockhart, suggesting a new phrase here, a tweak there.

"I can't go anywhere where people don't tug on my sleeve and say 'Tell Kerry to do this,' 'Tell Kerry to do that,' " says Mark Green, the campaign co-chair in New York. "I guess it's a sign of how much they care."

Or maybe how nervous they are. In polls over the past month Kerry is stuck at least a few points behind President Bush. So his supporters are like sports fans at the tail end of a season: It's dawning on them that time's running out and their team might not win, so they're bursting with amateur coaching advice.

"Fifteen minutes into the speech I was thinking I need to get in there and do some heavy editing," says Catherine Wolcott, a supporter in the audience. "He just keeps repeating that stuff about the past and he needs to get to the future.

"I'm, like, panicking," Wolcott adds. "I look at the poll numbers and think where are we and where is Bush? We got to get higher up."

Kerry's supporters don't believe the race is over, particularly not after Monday's speech. Kerry's attitude was more tough, more mocking of Bush than he has been in the past: "If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded." The speech was received here as the beginning of Kerry's Incredible Hulk moment, when, angry and provoked, he finally unleashes his inner demon.

Still, "for the first time, I'm thinking about it," says Ellen Jacob, a Democratic activist who works in publishing, meaning thinking he might lose. "He had all this momentum in August and now it seems to be gone. Maybe if he could just speak more in sound bites, you know, quick catchy phrases."

On Monday afternoon, Kerry and Bush circled each other in a three-block radius in midtown Manhattan. Kerry taped his appearance on the David Letterman show, one block from a hotel where Bush held a fundraiser. Kerry then held his own fundraiser one block over from Bush's hotel.

On street corners, supporters held their own mini-debates, New York style.

"Proud of Bush," yelled Hilda Cruz.

"You must be kidding," yelled someone with a Joan Rivers accent.

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