Former Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry said the popular support President Bush garnered in the immediate wake of Sept.11, 2001, and the reluctance of voters to "shift horses in midstream" during wartime were the main reasons he lost the November election.
But Kerry, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, praised his own campaign for coming close, and said he intends to "build on the campaign" by continuing to be a leading voice of the opposition.
"I lost, Tim, to an incumbent president by a closer margin than an incumbent president has ever won reelection before in the history of the country," the Massachusetts senator told NBC's Tim Russert. "And if you add up the popular vote in the battleground states, I won the popular vote in the battleground states by two percentage points. We just didn't distribute it correctly in Ohio."
The interview capped a series of events -- including a trip to Iraq, a speech on health care and two mass e-mails to supporters -- serving notice that Kerry wishes to retain the national voice he gained as his party's nominee during Bush's second term. Current and former advisers in recent weeks have said that Kerry's competitive instincts leave him inclined to seek the option of running for president in 2008, and that he intends to keep his profile sufficiently high to preserve that option.
In the NBC interview, Kerry said he has given no thought to his plans for 2008, including whether he will seek reelection to the Senate that year. "I'm going to keep all my options open," he said when pressed by Russert on his ambitions.
"Did we make some mistakes? You bet we did," Kerry said of his presidential campaign. But the thrust of his comments was to argue that the mistakes were at the margins, and that his campaign deserves credit for challenging a war president with imposing political advantages.
"I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race," said Kerry, who noted that when a taped message from Osama bin Laden surfaced days before the Nov. 2 polling, "we flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday."
"It's a very difficult hurdle when a country is at war," Kerry said. He later added, "I think it's remarkable we came as close as we did as a campaign."
In seeking to maintain his viability as a presidential candidate, rather than receding into elder-statesman status, Kerry is swimming against a historical tide. The last presidential candidate who earned a second nomination after losing once was Richard M. Nixon, in 1968. Most losing nominees earn more catcalls than bouquets from their party, much less demands for an encore.
Even for the 2000 Democratic nominee, Al Gore, who defeated Bush in the popular vote, there was a decided ambivalence. Some Democrats wished he had spoken out more aggressively as an opposition leader at the beginning of the Bush presidency. But many were relieved to see him step aside.
It is clear that many people wish Kerry likewise would yield the stage, or be jostled to the side. One of those is billionaire George Soros, a major financier of liberal opposition groups such as America Coming Together that waged independent campaigns against Bush. In an interview with Bloomberg News Service at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Soros said: "Kerry did not, actually, offer a credible and coherent alternative. That had a lot to do with Bush being reelected."
Soros, who said he has no regrets about the millions he spent during the election, faulted Kerry for playing up his "role as a Vietnam War hero" instead of talking more openly about "his role as an anti-Vietnam War hero" and the protest activities that first brought him to the national stage in the early 1970s.
But one former colleague from Massachusetts politics said he would be eager to see Kerry maintain a prominent role. Former governor Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, said no one was eager for him to run again because he ran a "lousy" general election campaign, but he said Kerry, "all things being equal," ran a "darn good" campaign.
Dukakis said in an interview that the man who served as his lieutenant governor had, unlike most recent presidential nominees, "an unusual opportunity to go back to the Senate" and use that platform. "He's not going to be the opposition leader, because that's not the way the system works," Dukakis said. "He is in a position to assert himself, and I would hope and expect that he will."
Kerry can still attract the attention of the opposition. His comments to Russert on Iraq drew a blast from Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman. Asked whether Iraq is less of a terrorist threat than it was two years ago, Kerry replied: "No, it's more. And, in fact, I believe the world is less safe than it was two and a half years ago."
"On a day when all Americans, regardless of party affiliation, are celebrating the growth of freedom with elections in Iraq, it's sad that John Kerry has chosen once again to offer vacillation and defeatism," Mehlman said in a statement.
Kerry said "the likelihood is yes" that he will support Bush's latest request for $80 billion in new funding for Iraq. He acknowledged, as he did in the campaign, that he blundered with his confusing and politically self-wounding comment that he voted both ways on an earlier $87 billion funding measure.
Kerry has some political leverage because he finished the campaign with a financial surplus of $14 million, which has since been drawn down but remains substantial. He can shower that money on other Democrats, if he chooses. Some critics said it was a sign of poor planning that he finished the campaign with a surplus, but Kerry said that his battleground-state campaigns got all the money they needed.
He waved off news of a poll conducted by Suffolk University and WHDH, the NBC affiliate in Boston, that found that 59 percent of Massachusetts voters do not want him to run for president again. The polls, he noted, once indicated he had no chance of winning the nomination. "So I think polls are almost irrelevant," Kerry said, "and I just don't pay any attention to them."