Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) has begun targeting swing voters and disaffected Republicans in an effort to expand the election battleground, a strategy that includes emphasizing centrist themes on the campaign trail while privately reassuring liberal constituencies he is committed to their core issues.
After watching and sometimes wincing at a clip of himself on the evening news in California earlier this month, Kerry has tried to adjust his campaign pitch by toning down the rhetoric and dropping some of his more bombastic sound bites from the primary campaign. His stump speech now includes a measured appeal to independents and "non-Bush Republicans" and the assertion that he is more conservative than the president when it comes to budget deficits and respecting the Constitution.
Kerry aides have been talking about investing money for advertising in additional Republican-leaning southern states, including North Carolina and possibly Virginia, that most analysts consider strong Bush country. Kerry is also intrigued with the idea of putting an unmistakable bipartisan stamp on his candidacy by appearing to woo a Republican such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as his running mate, or at least signaling his intention to tap Republicans for key Cabinet posts, according to some aides.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said four Democrats not part of the Kerry campaign have asked whether he has any interest in joining Kerry's ticket. Hagel said no, but, in an interview Friday, applauded Kerry's interest in creating a bipartisan government. McCain, too, has repeatedly ruled out becoming Kerry's running mate, though the two share a dislike for the Bush administration. Kerry will name his choice for vice president in July, according to a Democrat familiar with the selection process.
Kerry's effort to adjust his message also represents a strategic necessity for another reason. A top Democratic strategist, who discussed private data on the condition of anonymity, said internal polling shows that Kerry is still viewed as a Massachusetts liberal by a large number of independents and some Republicans who express a willingness to vote for a Democrat.
Several party officials said the candidate's close affiliation with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), one of the country's best known liberals and war critics, is hurting Kerry's standing in the middle. Kennedy's prominence at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July could reinforce that connection.
Kerry advisers talk openly about expanding the electoral map and appealing to swing voters and even some Republicans. This is "our target audience," Tad Devine, a top Kerry adviser, told reporters last week at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "It is our intention to expand the race further into red states."
Devine was referring to the states Bush won in 2000, which are generally colored red in contrast to the Democrats' blue on most political maps. He said the campaign would like to put as many as 380 electoral votes into play by moving more aggressively into the South, although several Democrats said this would be a waste of time and money.
The campaign recently launched television ads in Louisiana and Colorado, both of which Bush won in 2000, forcing the president's campaign to shift gears and follow the Democrat on the air in both states.
Bush strategists say Kerry will meet resistance if he tries to expand the electoral map beyond the states where the Democrat is currently advertising. "Realistically, I don't think there's any place [else] they could" compete, said a senior Bush adviser. "And I don't think Louisiana is realistic." Even Colorado, he predicted, will be in Bush's column in November, although he conceded it might be competitive.
Both campaigns are spending heavily on organizational efforts designed to maximize turnout among their partisans, but advisers to Bush and Kerry have concluded that attracting the relatively small pool of undecided voters is essential.
Kerry hopes to appeal to them by softening his liberal image in the coming months, and his stump speech now includes passages designed to suggest he is reaching across party lines to voters disaffected with the president.
At a fundraiser at the Connecticut home of singers Paul Simon and Edie Brickell on Friday night, Kerry put it this way: "This race is not primarily about party, it's not about labels. Discard 'Republican,' 'Democrat,' 'liberal,' 'conservative.' It's about common sense, mainstream American values and how we make our country stronger."
Whether Kerry can authentically project a more moderate message is a major question. He has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, but centrist Democrats say that on many defining votes in the 1990s -- welfare reform and free trade among them -- Kerry sided with the centrist wing of the party against the liberal wing.