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Hurry, Kerry

Former front-runner John Kerry has a hero’s war record, a Senate seat, all the family wealth one could hope for. He even looks like a president. But to become one, he’s got to get past Howard Dean. And time is running out.

The schedule of a presidential candidate is scripted down to the nanosecond, but every now and then, John Kerry goes AWOL. In Des Moines one sunny Saturday afternoon, he was given the keys to a staffer’s motorcycle—the plan was to make a dramatic entrance at the next event—and Kerry hopped on and took off the wrong way, heading toward the Iowa cornfields. Twenty minutes later, an anxious aide, standing on a downtown street corner, was overheard sending out an urgent SOS via cell phone: “We’ve lost the senator!” Kerry roared up moments later, his thick hair windswept, with a bad-boy grin.

That was July. In October, Kerry was riding in a van down a country road in New Hampshire, en route to give a speech, when he spied Fifield’s Military Surplus Store. “Do we have time to stop?” he asked an aide. “No,” came the reply, “but we’ll make time.” The blue van took a quick hard right; suddenly, six chase cars containing reporters and photographers careered off the road, nearly causing a wreck. “I forgot they were there,” said Kerry, looking startled and amused. As this entourage followed him into the small store, cameras and notepads poised to capture every move, Kerry quickly realized there was no way to have a relaxed chat with the proprietor or browse through the memorabilia, and retreated wistfully back to the van.

You have to feel John Kerry’s pain. No candidate had more going into this race: the strongest résumé, war-hero credentials, big-name backers, the most experienced campaign team—hell, he even looks like a president. But he’s been upstaged by two novices: antiwar bulldog Howard Dean, who’s become a populist hero to disenfranchised Democrats, and Wesley Clark, whose four stars overshadow Kerry’s military record. “If Kerry were losing ground to someone like Lieberman or Gephardt whom he respected,” says one close ally, “it would be one thing, but to be losing to Howard Dean is infuriating to him. Does he rant? No, but it gets to him.”

“Since when does it not matter that you have experience with things?” Kerry told voters acidly at a recent New Hampshire house party.

In an effort to jump-start his flagging campaign last week, Kerry took the radical step of firing his outspoken campaign manager, Jim Jordan, and replacing him with Mary Beth Cahill, the no-nonsense chief of staff for Ted Kennedy. “We needed a change in leadership,” says Kerry. “She knows all the players, all the people who are working with me.” Two other staffers walked out with Jordan. “I knew there would be fallout and a downside,” Kerry says, “but the upside is yet to come.” Cameron Kerry, the senator’s younger brother, said of Cahill, “She’s tough and she’s organized.”

The widely reported dissension within the campaign—described by an insider as “poisonous, with constant backstabbing”—has got to be wearing to Kerry, who’s known as a micromanager, operating from the front seat of his campaign van. Indeed, Jordan, in an interview in the campaign’s Washington office in a Capitol Hill townhouse just 48 hours before he was fired, described the senator’s mood by saying, “He’s tired. This is a draining thing.” But the perceived winner in last week’s power struggle—controversial veteran Washington media consultant Bob Shrum—had an upbeat spin last Tuesday. “Kerry is resolute, determined. He’s in a good mood,” insisted Shrum, adding that he had joked with the senator just that morning about being attacked in the New York Times for writing the senator’s lackluster campaign-announcement speech. “Kerry laughed and he said, ‘Better you than me.’ ”

It’s a make-or-break moment for Kerry. With the second largest bankroll and a national field operation, Kerry remains the most plausible alternative to the feisty Dean, as Democrats agonize over which candidate has the best shot to beat Bush. Since the racetrack touts have decreed that Iowa belongs to Dick Gephardt or Dean, Kerry doesn’t lose any ground if he comes in a respectable third. But New Hampshire’s a different story, since it’s the state in which Kerry has been a dominant media presence for nineteen years via the neighboring Boston TV airwaves. If he loses New Hampshire to Dean, it will be nearly impossible for the Massachusetts senator to recover.

What’s ironic is that Kerry has been tagged a wooden Al Gore clone when in truth he cannot mask his emotions. No matter how hard he tries to follow the dictates of stay-on-message discipline, it’s all out there. In the space of one single mid-October day of rolling interviews in New Hampshire, he went from the sound-bite banalities of robo-candidate (“There’s a real test here as to who can lead America to a better place”) to stunning bursts of candor. (“At the ripe old age of 11, I was sent to boarding school. Homesick? I cried for three weeks straight.”)

For a cerebral candidate burdened with the reputation of seeming aloof (“He’s deaf in one ear from Vietnam, and he doesn’t hear things as well as he might,” says his heiress wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry), the Massachusetts senator often seems almost desperate to connect. With his intimidating height and worry-of-the-world mien, he looks statesmanlike and standoffish, yet he’s a hands-on, give-them-a-bear-hug toucher. “Hey, man” or “Thanks, brother” or “Rock and roll” (that is, let’s get moving, staff) are his catchphrases. He’s a candidate who revels in referring to his Vietnam experience (partly because, aside from Clark, he’s the only Democrat with a war record) but who also gives the impression that only with fellow vets and longtime friends can he allow himself to relax. Unlike the doctor-knows-best persona of Dean, the elusively bland Clark, or the doggedly determined Gephardt, the 59-year-old Kerry is that rarity on the stage of presidential politics—a candidate who, try as he might, cannot avoid projecting emotional complexity. “John is not a machine,” says Chris Heinz, his stepson. “Things bother him, he’s sensitive, but he wants to be positive.”

Nothing is simple with Kerry. Especially not his sometimes infuriatingly nuanced, but consistent, explanations of why he voted for last year’s Iraqi war resolution yet vigorously opposes the way President Bush has conducted this go-it-alone war and mishandled the peace. Although his position is intellectually defensible—he interpreted his vote as authorizing Bush to go to the U.N. to both pressure Saddam and put together a coalition force—Kerry just can’t seem to sell it.

In fact, many Democrats can’t figure out what it is that he is selling in general—other than a well-bred, Yale-educated introvert struggling to turn himself into a man of the people. Aside from his long résumé, Kerry offers voters a set of positions that are very much within the Democratic mainstream—from his opposition to most, but not all, Bush tax cuts to his middle-ground position on health-care reform. This blurry persona might be acceptable if Kerry were atop the polls, but it presents more serious problems for a candidate who is no longer blessed with an aura of inevitability.

Within the Kerry campaign, battles raged for months over whether the senator should take the high road and campaign against Bush or go for Dean’s jugular, as Jordan and communications director Chris Lehane recommended. Kerry chose to virtually ignore his Democratic competitors for months, although now he hits back daily. “It’s no secret that Chris Lehane and I were on the same side,” said Jordan in the interview before he was fired; Lehane quit in September and joined the Clark campaign. “We wanted to get out there against Dean,” said Jordan, “not in a harsh way, but to point out the differences.”