Taking on Bush -- together

Campaign: Kennedy-Kerry ties are deep, but some say the senior Massachusetts senator could turn off swing voters.

April 16, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Edward M. Kennedy's voice, more monster-truck rally announcer than Boston Brahmin senator, booms through a packed hotel ballroom here as he warms up a crowd of donors for John Kerry.

"There's a wave that's coming across this country," roars Kennedy. "You give John Kerry the opportunity to get his message across to the American people, he'll give America back the White House."

It is a pitch Kennedy delivered loudly and often as a prominent figure in Kerry's campaign for the Democratic nomination. But while Kennedy may elicit cheers from partisan audiences, he is also a lightning rod capable of turning off swing voters in key states where the fall election will be fought out.

For months, Kennedy has staged rallies and raised money for Kerry, whose persona has always hewed closely to the Kennedy family's - from the initials he shares with John F. Kennedy to the aristocratic accent and turns of phrase in his speeches.

As he campaigns for Kerry, Kennedy has also been making speeches attacking Bush for his handling of the war in Iraq, which Kennedy called "George Bush's Vietnam" last week.

When Kerry's campaign foundered, Kennedy offered up his chief of staff, Mary Beth Cahill, to salvage it. Kerry's operation is now led by an inner circle peopled in large part by strategists who came to prominence working for Kennedy, including Robert Shrum, a key adviser.

Some Democrats worry that Kerry's decision to tether himself to Kennedy could hurt Kerry's efforts to appeal to undecided voters in more conservative areas of the country where Kennedy is unpopular.

"Kennedy is very helpful in solidifying and motivating the base. But independents are looking for ways to identify Kerry as a moderate- to middle-of-the-road type of Democrat, and Senator Kennedy is not going to help with that," says Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana.

Comparing Kerry to Kennedy is a favorite pastime of Republicans. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said Kennedy's presence in the campaign only emphasizes how liberal Kerry is.

"The more Ted Kennedy is on the campaign trail, the better," DeLay says.

Bush campaign officials say Kerry doesn't need Kennedy to make him look left of center.

"Obviously, Kerry has appointed Ted Kennedy to be his political hatchet man," says Terry Holt, a Bush spokesman. "But Kerry is a very divisive figure himself."

Some Democratic leaders in battleground states deny that Kennedy's presence on the campaign trail will drive away potential votes, arguing that the candidate will make or break his campaign. But others say Kerry would do better to keep Kennedy away.

"Ted's a great senator, and he does the people of his state great things, but this is Ohio, and Ted's not running for president," says Dennis White, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "Ted's not a senator from the Midwest. He could probably do a lot better things for Mr. Kerry in his own state, where they love him."

Some analysts had expected Kerry to distance himself from Kennedy once he had the nomination solidly in hand. During the intense primary season, they thought it was useful to have Kennedy as a major presence, but with the onset of the race against Bush, his appeal is less obvious.

"I doubt that he's very popular here," Ron L. Oliver, the Democratic chairman in Arkansas, says of Kennedy. "I really don't think he would come here."

Still, more than a month into the general election contest, Kennedy is woven as tightly as ever into the fabric of Kerry's campaign. For the two senators from Massachusetts, the presidential race seems a fitting capstone to a complicated, four-decade relationship between men who were frequently at odds until they became friends 10 years ago.

Kerry's life and career have been defined in significant ways by the Kennedys, starting with his early fascination - some say obsession - with John F. Kennedy.

"John modeled himself on JFK, not in the sense of copying him, but in terms of trying to follow his example and being inspired by him," says Harvey H. Bundy a Chicago-based portfolio manager who was Kerry's roommate at Yale University, where classmates kidded their friend about having the same initials as the president.

Kerry volunteered for Ted Kennedy's 1962 Senate campaign, met with the senator on the National Mall as he protested the Vietnam War in 1971, then ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1972 at Kennedy's urging.

Through his nearly 20-year Senate career, Kerry has struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by Kennedy, a legislative powerhouse and stalwart on traditional Democratic issues such as education and health care.

Kerry typically begins his remarks during joint appearances by joking that Kennedy has just finished telling him that he'll never measure up.

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