Lessons Learned, Kerry Hits Trail for Obama

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

DALLAS, Feb. 24 -- Sen. John F. Kerry is attending to some unfinished business.

Four years ago, his bid to topple President Bush fell short, damaged by a series of Texas broadsides that became known as the Swift boat attacks. His demise spawned a term that came to signify a political low blow. Now Kerry has returned to the campaign trail, this time as a spirited foot soldier for Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who aims to succeed where Kerry did not.

Carrying his own overnight bag and following another candidate's script, Kerry jetted to small gatherings around Texas this weekend, telling audiences that Obama, 18 years his junior and barely schooled in Washington's ways, could lead a "transformational presidency." He said the way Obama thinks about politics and foreign policy is uplifting.

"You read all the tea leaves. You can understand the dynamics," Kerry told an audience in Brownsville on Saturday. "I believe Barack Obama has this moment of history to be able to change these politics and take the negative off, to take the politics of destruction away. He isn't seeking to perfect Swift-boating, he's seeking to end it. This is a man who understands we've got to talk to each other."

Kerry, who is seeking reelection, is making time to travel to Texas and Ohio for Obama. He dearly wants Obama to succeed, saying he sees a chance for the first spate of "progressive legislation in this country since Kennedy and Johnson."

"It is gusto," Kerry said as a five-seat jet shuttled him between events in Brownsville and Del Rio. "I really believe in him."

His events this weekend were relaxed affairs, each attended by 100 to 200 people. Among them was always a contingent of veterans, a constituency that Kerry is trying to cultivate for Obama, who did not serve in the military. He offered slices of Obama's biography and dwelled little on his own presidential campaign, in which he chose Obama to deliver a speech at the Democratic National Convention that became instantly famous.

Watching from a distance, Kerry says Obama's months of combat have helped prepare him for the general election, should he vanquish Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). He said Obama is "speaking with more confidence and authority," adding: "He's steady. He's gotten better -- debates, message, discipline."

Four years ago, Kerry said, neither the candidate nor the campaign was as far advanced.

"He's been at this at a higher level of intensity at an earlier stage," Kerry said, "and I think that's good for the party."

Kerry, who serves with Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he learned some hard lessons during a campaign that many Democrats felt he should have won. He will offer Obama advice if asked but intends to do it privately. Among Democrats, however, a few matters have become very public cautionary tales.

"The Republican attack machine has proven that it's willing to do and say anything," said Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran slow to answer the Swift boat attacks on his war record. "If you have any indication that there is something out there that can cut, you have to go at it."

Dollar for dollar, news cycle by news cycle, Kerry said, the Democratic nominee must parry attacks.

"Look, our mistake was not understanding it. Our mistake was that we didn't answer it," Kerry said, referring to the damaging summer of 2004. "I am confident that will not be repeated by any candidate."

With none of the media crush or the incessant demands that whittle a candidate's day into tiny pieces, Kerry now travels light, calls his wife for news updates and gamely hurries through Burger King drive-throughs for a value meal -- Coke, fries and Whopper with cheese, no onions.

At 6 p.m. Saturday, the fast food counted as a very late lunch or an early dinner. It was the only thing he would eat before he arrived, two flights and one speech later, at his Dallas hotel, shortly before 11:30 p.m. He gobbled the burger in the back seat while doing a cellphone interview. He was on his way to the next stop, trying to look ahead.

Staff researcher Rena Kirsch contributed to this report.

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