Democrat John F. Kerry plans to use his Senate seat and long lists of supporters to remain a major voice in American politics despite losing the presidential race last Tuesday, and he is assessing the feasibility of trying again in 2008, friends and aides said yesterday.
Kerry will attend a post-election lame-duck Senate session that begins next week and has said he is "fired up" to play a highly visible role, the friends and aides said.
Aides said Kerry is relishing the prospect of renewed combat with President Bush, fighting such measures as the president's proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Kerry has spent most of the past two years on the campaign trail, meaning that his return to Capitol Hill will be something of a reintroduction to colleagues.
Kerry's plans contrast starkly with the approach taken by former vice president Al Gore, who all but disappeared from the political scene after losing to Bush in the disputed 2000 presidential election.
Kerry fueled talk about a 2008 bid during remarks at a Washington restaurant Saturday night. He provoked a thunderous reaction by reminding about 400 campaign aides and volunteers that Ronald Reagan twice sought the Republican nomination for president before winning it in 1980.
"Sometimes God tests you," Kerry told the crowd at H20, a restaurant on the Potomac waterfront, according to an aide. "I'm a fighter, and I've come back before."
Bob Shrum, Kerry's chief campaign consultant, told reporters during a Democratic panel yesterday that Kerry "will not do what Al Gore did after the last election -- he will not disappear."
"He will be active and vocal," Shrum said. "He has one of the most powerful lists in the Democratic Party and one of the most powerful fundraising bases in the Democratic Party, and I think he intends to use it to speak out."
Several Democrats expressed skepticism about Kerry's plans, saying they believe the party needs a fresh face and must turn a corner. One well-known Democratic operative who worked with the Kerry campaign said opposition to Bush, not excitement about Kerry, was behind the senator's fundraising success. "If he thinks he's going to capitalize on that going forward, he's in for a surprise," said the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Another Democrat involved in Kerry's campaign strategy -- who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, in order to be more candid -- said: "I can't imagine people are going to say, 'It worked pretty well last time. This is what we need next time.' "
Kerry has mostly remained at his Boston home since Election Day and has spent some of that time preparing for his return to the Senate. The friends and aides said he wants to use his new following and credibility to become a major force on legislation that will extend well beyond his previous portfolio of national security issues.
The senator from Massachusetts is also contemplating establishing a political action committee and perhaps a think tank to elevate his role during the jockeying over the definition and leadership of the Democratic Party. Kerry lost to Bush by three percentage points in the popular vote and by 34 electoral votes. The president carried 31 states to 19 for Kerry.
Shrum made his remarks in an appearance at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with James Carville, chief strategist of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, and Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. The session started out as a clinical dissection of what went right for Bush and wrong for Kerry.
But it quickly became a blunt, emotional discussion of the future of the Democratic Party -- a high-decibel preview of countless conversations that will occur as Democrats try to figure out how to retake the White House after winning only twice in the past seven elections.
"I'm not in denial. Reality hit me," Carville said. "Let's take the greatest morality story of all -- we're born again," he added, in a play on words connoting both his view that the party needs a fundamental change, as well as the importance of evangelical Christians to Bush.
"We have to treat the disease, not the symptom," Carville said. "The purpose of a political party is to win elections, and we're not doing that."
Carville said that the party's concern about interest groups had resulted in "litanies, not a narrative."
"The party needs a narrative," he said. adding later that one possibility would to become "an aggressively reform, anti-Washington, anti-business-as-usual party."
Greenberg said that big forces had been at work in the election, meaning that mere tinkering was not the answer for Democrats. He said Bush had cleverly freed himself from the normal standards by which an incumbent is judged.
"In being successful in making the election about security/safety and values," Greenberg said, "they don't say, 'Vote for us because we're making progress.' They say, 'Vote for our worldview.' " Greenberg said that "downscale America, starting with rural voters and cascading with older, blue-collar America, shifted to Bush" in the last 10 days of the race, including some union voters.
Shrum said of the campaign's decision to emphasize a final-week revelation about missing explosives in Iraq: "There wasn't disagreement inside the campaign about that. So if it was a mistake, it was a mistake that we all share responsibility for."
Shrum acknowledged that he had not seen the problems at the time, saying that he believed on Election Day and the night before that Kerry would win. "All the polls appeared to be moving in the right direction," Shrum said. "We thought, 'We're ahead in the battleground states, we'll win in the battleground states.' "
Also yesterday, the Associated Press quoted a party veteran as saying that Howard Dean, who lost the nomination fight to Kerry, is considering a bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.