Leading Man

John KerryPhoto: Globe Photos

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.

Kerry’s own, heterosexual, marriage is sure to become campaign fodder as well. Teresa Heinz Kerry, commonly tagged “the $500 million ketchup heiress,” is routinely caricatured as an oddball, for her upbringing in Mozambique as the daughter of a Portuguese doctor and for her pronouncing her name Teh-ray-zuh. She also has a history of refreshing public candor. Yet in person, she comes across as surprisingly shy. Lately, T.H.K. has been campaigning mostly apart from J.F.K., but whenever they’re together, the senator instantly lights up. When Teresa chooses to ride in a separate car one night while Kerry is being interviewed, he looks bummed.

Kerry knows Teresa will be a Republican target. “They make fun of my wife at their peril,” he says, blue eyes flashing. “If the worst they can do is make fun of my wife because she happened to have had a husband who was killed in a plane crash and she inherited some money, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. We’re gonna try to fight this race out on the issues: jobs, health care, education, children, the environment, our role in the world. I think Americans aren’t gonna stand for those things being sidelined.”

Max Cleland knows how rough the Republicans can play. He lost his 2002 Senate re-election bid when GOP operatives in Georgia questioned his patriotism. Cleland lost three limbs to a grenade attack in Vietnam. He’s told Kerry that he regrets not punching back sooner and harder. “They’re gonna try to make him look like the weirdest creature that ever came out of the lagoon,” Cleland says, sitting in his wheelchair after a Kerry rally, massaging the stump of his right arm. “They’ll try to slime John through the Internet.”

Cleland laughs ruefully, and within a week he’s proven prophetic, as Drudge floats the “intern issue.”

On Imus the next morning, Kerry shrugs off the rumors. Privately, a top Kerry aide is even more emphatic. “It’s bullshit. There’s no factual basis for it. It’s not true. Never has been, never will be.”

From Maine, Kerry jets to new York for a quick meeting with his finance team and a dinner with heavy-hitters. Only a handful of reporters are allowed to fly with Kerry while the rest—crankily—are sent ahead to Detroit. At the Hilton on Sixth Avenue, they’re kept in a hallway, craning their necks to see who’s there and spotting investment banker Steven Rattner, Infinity Broadcasting chairman John Sykes, hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer, real-estate developer Stephen Green (brother of mayoral candidate Mark Green), and, in a tuxedo, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Kerry raises over $750,000. “The Republicans will always have more money than us, and that will be a big hurdle,” a campaign strategist says later. “It’s a disadvantage, but it helps Kerry run as even more of an underdog against Bush.”

Back on the plane, the candidate is asleep before wheels-up. The next morning, though, he bounds into the pulpit at Detroit’s Second Ebenezer Baptist Church and is dropping his g’s as he tries to bond with the all-black parishioners. One hour north, in a banquet hall rented by the Macomb County Democratic Committee, the crowd is all-white and nearly all-union; here, Kerry introduces his biggest endorsement coup yet, the very pale union favorite Dick Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who had dropped out of the presidential contest two weeks earlier. Then it’s back on the bus for a trip to a raucous rally on a gleaming mock-factory floor at a community college in Flint, followed by a late-night flight to snowy Nashville.

The rallies are the show-biz, but it’s during the in-betweens—on the flights from city to city and at the hotel bars late at night—when Kerry aides sit and chat that the outlines of a strategy to beat Bush emerge. The campaign has just expanded its “opposition research” team to gather ammunition against Bush. Kerry will continue to pound the president over traditional domestic-policy issues, like job creation and health insurance, and hit Bush “early and hard” by calling out Karl Rove and RNC chairman Ed Gillespie by name as the masterminds of a Republican “smear machine.” The campaign is also paying careful attention to style, putting Kerry amid groups of ordinary people at every opportunity, contrasting his accessibility with Bush’s remoteness. Borrowing from Bill Clinton, Kerry talks to hundreds of small-town TV and newspaper reporters, trying to define his image before the Republicans do.

Kerry’s strategists know that Rove and company will try to tar the senator as another Massachusetts liberal, even further to the left than Ted Kennedy and Michael Dukakis, and they’ve got a plan to highlight Kerry’s more moderate views and votes. “It seems strange to say, but Howard Dean has helped us do our job,” says one senior strategist. “By running to the left of us, he made Kerry the defender of things like the middle-class tax cut.” And by jumping out to an early lead and forcing Kerry to come from behind in Iowa and New Hampshire, Dean, say Kerry’s strategists, did them two more favors: “Voters always like a candidate better when he’s earned it,” says one senior adviser. And the tough initial race served as a guard against Kerry’s tendency toward complacency.

“He’s best when he’s in a fight or a crisis,” says a top Kerry strategist, remembering how when Kerry was at his low point in November, he fired his campaign manager and brought in Mary Beth Cahill, a disciplined Massachusetts operative who transformed the organization and allowed Kerry to focus simply on being the candidate instead of making every decision. “Kerry is a guy who needs a lot of stimulus to get going. He windsurfs, he’s fought in a war. He needs the adrenaline.”

Another vivid lesson is being taken from Al Gore’s bitter defeat in 2000. “Kerry thinks the ultimate reason Gore lost is because people thought he was a fraud,” says the adviser. “Gore never figured out what he believed in. Kerry knows what he believes, and no one is more authentic.” So the campaign’s bus is named “The Real Deal Express,” and between now and November, Kerry will never go more than a few minutes without reference to his record as a Vietnam war hero. George Bush has tried to wrap himself in the American flag. Kerry, with the help of the “swift boat” crew members who appear at his rallies and in his commercials, will wrap himself in camo.

Perhaps, as more people learn the details of Kerry’s Vietnam bravery, he’ll win as many hearts as minds. The candidate sounds downright plaintive when asked if he buys the conventional wisdom that the presidency is different from all other offices, because voters need to feel a personal connection to a man in order to vote for him. “I think people have to trust you,” Kerry says. “And obviously, hopefully, like you to some degree. Sometimes people have underestimated me in that regard. I think that over the course of the last year I’ve proven that I have an ability to build relationships with people. I can laugh at myself, I can poke fun at myself, I can have a good time. But at the same time I’m serious about issues. And I don’t want to walk away from that. I think it’s a serious time, and people want somebody who’s a leader. And I hope they will grow to like me as well as respect me, as they get to know me.”

Kerry won’t need to be loved to win the New York primary. But the candidate clearly needs to tap into something more ennobling than hatred of the president if he wants to win on less friendly turf. He’ll always be solemn, but lately Kerry has been departing from his standard stump speech to experiment with uplift. “When I was out in Washington the other day, flying in over the mountains, I could see the great Columbia River underneath, and Mount Rainier protruding above the clouds,” he says one morning in Nashville. “And I thought of the great expedition of Lewis and Clark … They went around the bends in that river not knowing what they’d find on the other side … It’s the story of America. It’s who we are and who we ought to be and who we ought to continue to be … We need to continue to be the Corps of Discovery, as a people.”

Kerry soon drifts back into a numbing wish list of nostrums and clunky phrases like “high-value-added jobs.” But the attempt at poetry is an indication that Kerry is growing as he pushes down the campaign trail. These days his speeches are framed by mocking references to Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner. The device draws appreciative hoots from the Democratic-primary faithful. When he’s appealing for general election votes, Kerry knows he’ll need to offer something more than the fact that he’s not Bush, a mission that’s all his own.

When John Kerry claims victory in Virginia and Tennessee he’s posed between a Chick-fil-A stand and a Taco Bell Express window. The campaign has chosen to celebrate crucial wins in two southern primaries, victories that essentially seal his nomination, in a student-activities-center food court at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The 200 or so students right in front of the temporary stage shriek happily at the sight of their man. Nearly as many pass by without stopping, clutching engineering textbooks and heading to the library.

The setting was picked as much for convenience as anything else—Kerry can be back at his Georgetown house in 30 minutes to get a head start on two days of badly needed rest, if nonstop fund-raising calls can be considered restful. The food-court scene has a kind of symbolism nonetheless. As long a slog as the primaries may seem, they are but a fast-food stop when your ultimate destination is the White House.

A few senior Kerry staffers grab cold bottles of Bud, but when an overeager volunteer bounds up and asks, “Where’s the victory party?” the aides shake their heads. “These wins are good, but there’s a sore feeling in the pit of my stomach,” says a key campaign operative. “Because I know what tomorrow’s gonna be: We’re gonna get hit hard, by our opponents, by the Republicans. And one mistake can blow the whole thing up.” For months the Kerry campaign has been lustily chanting “Bring it on!” Now, for better or worse, it’s here.

Leading Man