John Kerry's political handlers want a simple message. War hero. Foreign policy grown-up. Fighter for ordinary Americans. They want voters to see him bonding genially with his running mate's small son, joking about the superior hair on the Democratic ticket, and delivering policy-free riffs about "values" and the gulf between the "two Americas." What they don't want is for Kerry to appear before the voters as he really is: a complex, wonky sort of guy who actually thinks about policy.

This brutal suppression of Kerry's inner nerd leads to some oddities. The candidate's stump speeches, vetted by the political handlers, are only loosely connected to his actual policies. The speeches stretch to blame the Bush administration for the alleged absence of jobs, or, since job creation has picked up, to the alleged absence of high-paying ones. They seize upon the news of the day -- recently, it was the indictment of Enron's Ken Lay -- and twist it into a half-credible attack on President Bush's record. But if you set aside the rhetoric and look at what Kerry has actually proposed, it boils down to one idea: Roll back some of the Bush tax cuts that benefit the very rich, and spend the cash on extending medical insurance coverage.

This health proposal happens to be quite promising. The rise in the number of uninsured Americans to 44 million is a national scandal, and the mechanism that Kerry proposes to boost insurance coverage is ingenious. He would lift the cost of catastrophic care off the shoulders of private insurers, thereby allowing premiums to come down significantly. But does Kerry talk about this plan? Only superficially.

Or take Kerry's position on the AIDS pandemic. Spending on international AIDS programs has shot up under Bush, but Kerry has made a remarkable promise to double Bush's commitment. Kerry has also taken a brave position in favor of supplying clean needles to drug addicts, a policy that could combat a major cause of the nascent AIDS catastrophe in Asia and Eastern Europe. These good policies are not some campaign-inspired afterthought: In his Senate career, Kerry has been a leader on AIDS. But Candidate Kerry has been almost silent on this issue. Unless you burrow into his Web site, you won't know what his position is.

Or take education. Two weeks ago Kerry did deliver a policy-rich speech on the need to prepare American youngsters for a globally competitive economy. He invoked the push for universal schooling in the 19th century and Franklin Roosevelt's G.I. Bill, and he proposed a third wave of investment in the nation's human capital. To make college affordable, Kerry proposed federal grants to states that would be conditional upon a freeze on state-college tuition costs. Noting that fourth-grade girls are just as interested in math and science as fourth-grade boys, but that women make up only 10 percent of engineers, Kerry supported the idea of girls-only schools with a science focus.

Kerry's speech contained several other serious ideas, but there was one large problem. It was delivered to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, on the same day the candidate also addressed the National Council of La Raza: Naturally, much of the coverage focused on Kerry's relationship with blacks and Hispanics. The policy message got lost, which Kerry's political handlers may not have minded.

Maybe the handlers know their job, and Kerry's studious unstudiousness is great for his election prospects. Maybe it's true that campaigns are won with simple tricks: an appealing biography, a memorable slogan -- it's the bumper sticker, stupid, as James Carville might put it. But it's hard to believe that voters -- especially the open-minded swing voters who decide elections -- are really that shallow. Did George W. Bush win in 2000 because of his silver-spoon biography? Did Bill Clinton win in 1996 by promising a meaningless "bridge to the 21st century"? Not likely.

Candidates (and especially challengers) win elections by offering compelling visions, and those visions have to be based on real policies. Clinton won in 1992 not just because of Carville's slogan, catchy though it may have been; he won because he was prepared to grapple publicly with thorny issues, from the sources of American competitiveness to the pros and cons of NAFTA. It was Clinton's willingness to be substantive -- to show he was really wrestling with the tough questions that matter to Americans -- that made the elder George Bush seem out of touch with ordinary voters.

Clinton 1992 holds a lesson for today. By being truer to himself, John Kerry could make the younger George Bush look like a lazy lightweight.

mallabys@washpost.com