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."
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.
Both sets of supporters were in a buoyant mood, Bush from the polls, Kerry from his well-received speech. But the particular style of high reflected their temperaments.
"Confident." "A man of conviction. "Always consistent," people streaming out of the Bush fundraiser echoed, as if they'd been media trained. "Things are going well in New York," Bush had assured them.
Marion McQueen practically floated out of the room. "The president was just fabulous in his determination to stay the course and defend the American people. All around him people change and he stays the same, so truthful, so honorable, so credible. He says what he means and follows through with what he says."
Kerry supporters, meanwhile, were giddy, as if they'd just discovered their new love that morning. Timothy Paulson, political director of the New Democratic Majority, rushed up to Kerry as he walked in to tape the Letterman show and gave him his hand. "You're on the right track now, man," he told Kerry. "And he gave me the eye, like 'Are you saying I wasn't before?' "
Like many of the activists who stocked Kerry's events Monday, Paulson originally hails from the Howard Dean campaign. They liked Kerry because he sounded less like himself and more like Dean.
"He finally spoke from the heart," Paulson says. The campaign had given Paulson's group 100 tickets to Kerry's afternoon fundraiser, and after a flood of e-mails they had to request 100 more, a sign, says Paulson, of a mass conversion.
"Everyone's honestly coming around" to Kerry, he says. "I feel like once again we're harmonizing with the candidate. Everyone's like, 'We love John Kerry.' They're not saying, 'We disagree with this or that.' I mean maybe just over coffee, on the side."
At the fundraiser, Kerry reflected on his reborn self. He praised the triple victories of the Jets, Giants and Yankees and said: "I came here to bask in your glory, came here to grab onto that winning streak."
"Those guys," he said, meaning Republicans, "have got me in a fighting mood."
Afterward Prema Dordeodhar was "walking on air," she says, sounding as unambivalent as a Bush fan. "He was amazing, like a leader from the olden days. He projects such power, such strength.
"I feel like he could take over the whole world," she says. "Couldn't he?"