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Leading Man

With a series of wins from Maine to Tennessee, John Kerry all but locked up the Democratic nomination last week. But even as the famously serious senator began to smile a little, a daunting reality set in. The fight with George W. Bush has only just begun.

John Kerry  

The roar from the standing ovation is so loud and so strong that it seems to take physical form, lifting and propelling John Kerry through the massive swinging steel doors and into the kitchen of the Greater Richmond Convention Center as if he’s caught the sweet spot of a Banzai Pipeline breaker. It’s Saturday night and Kerry has just spoken to an overflow crowd of 2,500 at the Virginia Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. He followed Al Sharpton, who, as usual, unfurled the best line (“This election isn’t about who you sleep with, but whether you have a job when you wake up in the morning”); Wesley Clark and John Edwards are still to come. But Kerry is the star.

Now he’s veering through the kitchen, shaking hands with startled dishwashers, prep cooks, waitresses. “I need your vote Tuesday!” he tells them, clearly jazzed. “Count on me!” they blurt back. The only person bigger than the six-foot-four-inch Kerry, a mountainous chef named James Morgan, envelops the senator in a hug. Kerry slaps Gordon heartily on the back. It’s a rare moment of spontaneous joy, even if a chilling memory from 1968—an earlier son of Massachusetts, a senator surging toward the Democratic presidential nomination as an unpopular war dragged on, a man leaving behind a cheering crowd and taking a shortcut through a cluster of white-coated kitchen staff—comes unavoidably to mind.

Kerry is moving so fast he’s left his aides behind. He steps into a freight elevator and waits. Suddenly there’s a shout: “Impeach Cheney!” A spindly college-age guy with a wild mop of Carrot Top hair is moving toward Kerry, holding out a Lyndon LaRouche magazine. The cover has a picture of the vice-president casting a Grim Reaper shadow and carries the headline CHILDREN OF SATAN II: THE BEAST-MEN (apparently CHILDREN OF SATAN I was such a hit that a follow-up was required), and this nut has decided to hand-deliver a copy of the magazine to Kerry. “Impeach Cheney!” he squeaks again.

Kerry doesn’t ignore the guy, or laugh him off. “Impeach Cheney?” he yells back. “We don’t have control of the House or the Senate! We can’t impeach Cheney!”

The LaRouchie is backing up. Kerry is pitching forward in his wingtips. “Impeach Cheney?” Kerry yells again, louder. “I’m gonna beat Cheney! I’m gonna beat Cheney!”

Finally, Kerry’s aides scramble into the freight elevator and yank the gate shut. Kerry turns to his wife, who is wide-eyed at the scene. “Impeach Cheney?” Kerry says. “Where do these people learn about government?”

This was the state of the John Kerry campaign last week: Piling up crucial primary wins and momentum during a six-day dash of pomp and weirdness. On February 5, after a precious night of sleep in his own Boston bed, the junior senator from Massachusetts embarked on a 2,000-mile circle from Portland, Maine, to Michigan and Tennessee and Virginia, with one lucrative fund-raising detour to midtown Manhattan along the way. The plan: Use victories in all four primaries to fit a noose around the campaigns of Edwards and Clark, and trust Howard Dean to continue to self-immolate. Kerry must also achieve a tricky tonal balance: Make his nomination seem inevitable while not appearing overconfident.

Yet even as he closed in on a prize that seemed unreachable as recently as mid-December, Kerry was simultaneously launching an aggressive general-election attack designed to beat Dick Cheney—and, oh yeah, his boss, George W. Bush. The juxtaposition left the Kerry campaign, on the brink of victory, feeling strangely larval. And the Republicans, of course, began returning fire at the presumptive Democratic nominee, trying to position Kerry as an elitist Hanoi-Jane-comrade-in-arms turned prisoner-of-Washington-lobbying-money—and the kind of humorless scold who’d lecture a wacko about constitutional procedure. It’s only the very tip of the $200 million, nine-month onslaught of mudslinging and culture-war wedgery that’s to come.

“That’s fine,” Kerry says serenely, sitting in the front passenger seat of a minivan for a ride out of the convention center loading dock and around the corner to his Richmond hotel. “We used to have a saying over in Vietnam, when we were screwing around after missions. We’d have flare fights, we’d throw eggs at each other, and we’d look at each other and say, ‘Somebody’s gonna get really pissed at us for this.’ Then we’d say, ‘Well, what can they do—send us to Vietnam?’ If the worst the Republicans can throw at me are names and labels, I don’t worry about it in the least.”

Soon enough, there’s worse: As the votes in Virginia and Tennessee are being counted, the Kerry camp is already girding for the Matt Drudge primary—unsubstantiated rumors are circulating of an intern problem.

Bus to charter plane to bus to rally to bus to plane to bus to hotel. That’s the surface rhythm of each grueling day for Kerry and the 35 reporters and photographers following him, Portland blurring into Flint blurring into Nashville, every rally accompanied by songs from the pantheon of upbeat-but-inoffensive rock—Van Halen’s “Right Now,” U2’s “Beautiful Day.” But the real beat, whatever the surrounding accents and area codes might be, is thrust and parry, thrust and parry.

This morning, the clearest sign of Kerry’s growing momentum is that the governor of Maine, who last night was hospitalized after a car wreck, props himself up just so he can phone in an endorsement that’s piped into a rally in a tiny Portland gym. Jumping or limping, everyone wants onto the bandwagon. After the enthusiastic rally, though, it’s the 60-year-old senator who could use some meds: Kerry’s back is sore, and he lays down on a table before hobbling out for a press avail. Yesterday, Massachusetts’ highest court ordered the state to legalize gay marriage. Boston TV reporters are now screaming at Kerry from two feet away, begging for his response. “I’m for civil unions,” he says. “And my position is the same as Dick Cheney’s.”

It’s decently clever jujitsu. Not that it will make the subject go away. The Republicans and the media will make sure of that. After he lands in Richmond, Kerry is confronted by a Boston Herald reporter who offers to read him the two sentences of the Massachusetts Legislature’s proposed ban on gay marriage. Kerry punts. He’s testy, claiming he needs to consult a lawyer before answering.