With speech, Kerry is poised to get personal with voters

Chance: Strategists say that if he excels tonight, his remarks could mark a major turning point in a dead-even election.

Election 2004 -- The Democratic Convention

July 29, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOSTON - If Americans know anything about John Kerry, it's mainly what he's not: He's not warm and fuzzy. He's not a pauper. And he's not George W. Bush.

Tonight is Kerry's chance to give the country - and undecided voters - a better idea of who he really is. What Kerry needs to do in his Democratic convention acceptance speech, strategists say, is make millions of people feel they know him personally.

That's a tall order for the Massachusetts senator. Over more than two decades as a public official, he hasn't found it particularly easy to shed his Boston Brahmin reserve. He has earned a reputation as a cool, even aloof, politician.

"John Kerry is not one to bare his soul," said Tom Kiley, a Boston pollster and longtime Kerry adviser. "That's not who he is."

But Kiley maintains that Kerry's prime-time speech "is more of an opportunity than a threat or a danger."

Over the past week, the campaign has thrown a small army of Kerry's friends and relatives, including his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, his two daughters and the crew of the patrol boat he commanded in Vietnam, into an intensive effort to flesh out Kerry's biography through nightly convention speeches and countless interviews.

All of that has merely been a warm-up, though, for what is the biggest speech of Kerry's life and a potential turning point in the dead-even presidential election.

Helping craft the nominee's remarks is a team of writers led by Robert Shrum, a Washington consultant who also polished Al Gore's 2000 acceptance speech. (In it, Gore hung a lantern on his reputation for woodenness by confessing his "imperfections" and declaring, "I won't always be the most exciting politician.")

Kerry's success may hinge less on words of the speech or self-deprecation, and more on the cerebral candidate's ability to connect with ordinary Americans on an emotional level. If so, the crucial behind-the-scenes figure in the Kerry camp may actually be Michael Sheehan, a media coach, who works with public speakers on their presentation.

"It's more about how you deliver it and how people see you, rather than what you're saying," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes an independent political newsletter. "Kerry has to not seem like a politician."

Recent public opinion surveys point up the golden opportunity for Kerry and the Democrats in this year's election. A majority of voters, the surveys indicate, are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country and are ready for change in Washington.

But the national polls also show that only about one in three Americans know a great deal about the Democratic challenger and that much of what they've learned has been negative, largely a result of Bush campaign ads attacking Kerry as indecisive and a flip-flopper.

"Everybody knows about George Bush," says Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "They want to know about John Kerry."

A presidential re-election contest is typically a referendum on the incumbent. But even when voters are inclined to make a change, they must first be convinced that the challenger is up to the job. That is even more important at times of war or when the public believes the country is facing an external threat, as it does now.

"What has to happen is, the American people have to feel comfortable with Senator Kerry," says Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. "I think that's why this convention is crucial. For the first time, voters will get a sense of him."

Democrats say Kerry needs to show that, as president, he could lead the country in the war against terrorism and keep it secure - a dynamic that, polls show, still favors Bush. Though Kerry's campaign argues otherwise, many politicians say the Democrat has yet to cross a key threshold with many voters who cannot yet envision him as commander-in-chief.

"Has he fully crossed the threshold? If he hasn't, he's close," says Kiley, who says that in his speech, Kerry will provide "insight into who he is [and] the values he's learned that inspired his life in public service."

Crucial to perceptions of Kerry as commander-in-chief is his combat experience in Vietnam, a chapter of his life that the campaign has devoted more time to than any other and which he will highlight tonight.

Tad Devine, a senior Kerry strategist, says voters still have only a "minimal awareness" of the 60-year-old candidate's wartime experiences - that "he served" and "won some medals over there."

Kerry, who volunteered for service in Vietnam after his graduation from Yale, commanded a small boat that patrolled the treacherous Mekong Delta, earning decorations for battlefield gallantry and for being wounded in action.

"The single thing we're trying to achieve is for people to see [Kerry] as a leader," says his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill. "We have to make sure that these people, when they tune in relatively late to the campaign, hear what they need to hear."

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