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Letter From the Campaign Trail

Unscripted Candidate a Hit With Audiences

Insiders Say Kerry's Off-the-Cuff Remarks Show Progress in Connecting to Voters

Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page A05

KETCHUM, Idaho, Aug. 17 -- As John F. Kerry's well-rehearsed speech on the economy in Carson, Calif., reached a crescendo last week, revved-up supporters began a chant familiar to those who fought for the rights of migrant workers in the state.

"Si se puede! Si se puede!" the crowd intoned in Spanish, a phrase that means "yes, we can."

"The fact that he's willing to take that chance is a sign he's more comfortable," one strategist said of Sen. John F. Kerry's actions while stumping. (Laura Rauch -- AP)

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Not missing a beat, the Massachusetts senator responded: "Si se puede! Si se puede!"

Then he launched into an impromptu riff incorporating some of the Spanish phrases he knows. "I need your help," Kerry said as the audience roared. "Bush has broken a promise to all the Latinos."

"That's legit. That's cool. I like that," said Mary Edwards, 54, of Compton, Calif., who rose from her seat and applauded from the front row. "That's a nice touch."

The Democratic presidential nominee's two-week journey that concluded Saturday, when he began a three-day vacation here, was for the most part carefully choreographed, with the candidate making few deviations from each day's theme. But Kerry, who as a speechmaker is often portrayed as having trouble connecting with his audience, occasionally proved adept at repartee -- an example, those who have watched his campaign say, of how he has improved as a candidate.

"I've heard his speeches a lot before," said Edwards, who works in the district office of a Democratic House member. "This time, it felt like he was really talking to us."

It can be a risk for candidates to deviate too far from prepared remarks and engage in an unscripted give-and-take with an audience. "Unless you have a particularly skilled candidate, that sort of thing is fraught with potential for them to say something unhelpful or create news you don't want," said Democratic strategist Doug Schoen, who advised Bill Clinton. "The fact that he's willing to take that chance is a sign he's more comfortable and his advisers are more comfortable with it."

Kerry's campaign swing included dozens of small retail-style events that brought the candidate within earshot of his audiences. Sometimes his attempts at humor elicited as many groans for their cheesiness or confusing nature as they did laughter, such as when he told a sunglasses-wearing crowd in Center Point, Ore., that the group looked like a "band of beavers."

"On net, we think it is an advantage for us, and it's the way he likes to campaign," spokesman David Wade said. "This trip has allowed him to showcase that."

Last week at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Kerry held up the campaign book he and vice presidential nominee John Edwards produced. "We're giving these away," Kerry said as he tossed it into the crowd. When some people began scrambling for the copy, he responded: "Don't fight over it; there's more. We've got better things to fight over," using the moment to transition into a critique of the Bush administration.

Later, Kerry incorporated phrases shouted at the stage during a discussion of his policy on Iraq. When someone challenged him to "bring the troops home, now," he coolly said, "Let me tell you how we're going to get the troops home." Then he reiterated his desire to incorporate more international forces to help secure the country.

When another person shouted that he should "send Bush" to Iraq, Kerry did not take the bait.

The next day, during a question period after a speech in Henderson, Nev., a man began stumbling over what to call the Democratic nominee. "Mr. Kerry, uh, Senator Kerry," he began. "Call me John," Kerry told him as his audience clapped its approval.

During his swing through 22 states, many of which are closely contested, Kerry encountered vocal Bush supporters. Some interactions went less smoothly than others. In Milwaukee, Kerry responded to protesters by calling them "goons," and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, said they want "four more years of hell."

But he grew more comfortable with displays of dissent as the trip wore on. In Sedalia, Mo., last week, he was about to depart for Kansas by train when the crowd began chanting Bush's name. "That's all right. Let 'em chant, ladies and gentlemen," Kerry said, as his supporters began to drown out the Bush fans, "because they've only got three more months to chant."

-- Jonathan Finer

© 2004 The Washington Post Company