ELYRIA, Ohio -- This is one of those impeccably advanced rallies of a late presidential campaign, a spectacle to convey a sense of Almighty Momentum. John Kerry stands amid foliage on an athletic field here Saturday, fresh from another solidly reviewed debate performance. His stage is iconically adorned with hay bales, apples, pumpkins, flags and John Glenn. His crowd -- 20,000 or so -- is cheering, chanting his name, waving signs and all that.
But Kerry himself is conveying distraction. He keeps fidgeting while he is being announced by local congressman Sherrod Brown. He removes his brown canvas coat and then starts stalking around the lip of the stage, summoning an aide -- press steward Jim Loftus -- and telling him to summon another, trip director Setti Warren. Kerry whispers something briefly to Warren and hands him his coat.
This fuss has transpired during much of Brown's introduction and in view of many people in the crowd -- and could have probably been avoided had Kerry simply thrown his jacket over a bale of hay. The candidate walks up to the microphone and gives a few perfunctory waves and thank-yous.
He begins his stump speech with a few references to the Boston Red Sox and Friday's debate. He then recites a laundry list of laments about the lost jobs and the decline in international stature that President Bush has overseen. Kerry keeps saying how focused he is and how he's "fighting" for every vote, not wasting "a single minute."
But this doesn't preclude sprinting through a lot of those minutes. Kerry has a knack for being at once long-winded and also eager to be done. If it's possible to meander in a hurry, that's what he did Saturday. He is man between debates -- passing though on his way to somewhere else, a much bigger spotlight.
Kerry's schedule took him from Ohio to Fort Lauderdale and a Saturday night "town hall meeting," and then on yesterday to New Mexico, where he will give a speech and prepare for the last debate, which will be held Wednesday night in Tempe, Ariz.
The candidate is beginning to place greater emphasis on domestic issues, says spokesman Mike McCurry. The thematic shift will segue neatly into Wednesday's debate, which is to focus on domestic issues, long considered a strength for Kerry. It will also mean less explicit emphasis on Iraq, which has been central to Kerry's turnaround of fortunes in recent weeks.
Iraq remains -- judging by Kerry's events this weekend -- the emotional center of his campaign. It remains the topic on which he appears most fully engaged, on which his speeches have been at their most brisk and authoritative and his audiences most responsive.
"We need to make a fresh start in Iraq," Kerry says in Ohio, in a voice strikingly louder than it has been. He contrasts his four-point plan for Iraq with Bush's "four-word plan, more of the same." When Kerry's not talking about Iraq, you sense he misses talking about Iraq.
While domestic concerns might be "winning issues" for Kerry, foreign policy has long been a greater source of interest for him. Some Democrats and campaign aides -- interviewed before and after Friday night's debate in St. Louis -- expressed some concern that Kerry, when he discusses domestic issues, will lack the passion he displays when the subject is Iraq. "It can be a little dicey with Kerry when his heart's not fully into something," said one Democratic congressman who has known Kerry for a long time.
Until recently, Iraq was a tricky issue for Kerry. Is it a winning issue for him now? Perhaps in a purely political sense, but the campaign will not speak of it in such terms. It could appear crass, as if the campaign is gleeful about the front-page carnage that might be its best asset.
"John Kerry is not rooting for bad news," says Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador who is advising Kerry on foreign policy. He repeats this four times in a five-minute interview.
In fact, many on Kerry's campaign would prefer to not talk about Iraq at all, Holbrooke says. "If you ask John Kerry's political advisers, they would much rather campaign on the domestic issues, because the domestic issues are the ones that really matter to voters who tend to overwhelmingly support Kerry."
Even as he makes a transition to domestic issues, McCurry says, Kerry has comfortably settled on Iraq as a vehicle to discuss what he sees as Bush's broader failings -- the president's inability to recognize and rectify mistakes, his stubborn decision-making, the perception elsewhere in the world that he is arrogant. "Iraq is a way for Kerry to talk about candor," McCurry says. "The candor to acknowledge the things that need to be addressed."
Aides say Kerry is using a two-tiered strategy in which his events will focus on domestic issues of local importance (jobs in Ohio, health care and prescription drugs in Florida) while leaving events in Iraq to dominate national news.
"I've got your back," Kerry has been telling local audiences recently, the latest of several rallying cries in the course of his campaign. The line gets big applause, even though Kerry often delivers it in a too-slow, overenunciated cadence -- "I'iiiiiiive Gooooottttt Youurrrrrrrr Baaacckkk" -- like an aging preppie who's trying to talk like the cool kids.
Kerry also has a new sign and banner slogan: "Fighting for us," a credo signaling Kerry's commitment to fight for "regular people" against big, powerful interests. It is the distinctively populist rhetoric of Bob Shrum, the Democratic consultant who is helping Kerry and who has advised a string of presidential candidates, most recently Al Gore. In two appearances alone on Saturday, Kerry uttered the word "fight" or some variation -- "fought," "fights" and "fighting" -- 38 times.
"I volunteered to fight for this country and I will always fight to defend this country," Kerry says at Broward Community College Saturday night. He appears for nearly 90 minutes, giving a long speech and answering a series of questions. "The president hasn't shown the the strength to get the job done in Iraq and bring the troops home," Kerry says to a standing ovation, his biggest of the night.
"The president didn't fight for that. I will."
One woman asks, simply, how she can convince her Republican friends that Kerry will keep them safe from terrorists in the post-9/11 world. Kerry's answer devolves into a sprawling resume recital -- about, among other things, his work to normalize relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, his investigation of the BCCI bank in the 1980s -- that goes on for 12 minutes. A simple "I will wake up every day thinking about how to keep you safe" would probably have sufficed.
And there are more questions, too many -- about Haiti, education, the Middle East. An aide whispers to Kerry that it's time to leave, but hands keep jumping up.
"We love you, Senator Kerry," a woman yells. "Please stay and take my question."
"I can't folks, I really gotta go," Kerry says, jittery but unwilling to shut off questions -- or answer them quickly or simply.
He tells a Haitian American man who asks about medical liability that "John Edwards and I will be the Nixon-going-to-China of tort reform."
As more hands go up, Kerry's body language becomes more desperate, his arm flailing, hands spread almost pleadingly.
"We have 26 days, folks" (actually there were 24), Kerry says, talking fast. "I have to be a lot of places."
He takes another question.