As 2,000 Democratic activists gathered in Washington last week to plot President George W. Bush's defeat in the coming presidential election, the energy in the room was electric. The guest of honour leaped to the stage; the crowd emitted a spontaneous roar. The speech was a barnburner.
Pity, for the Democrats, that it was delivered by Howard Dean.
With six months to go until the U.S. election day, Democratic nominee John Kerry's muted impact on the campaign trail has some Democrats deeply worried. Mr. Dean has no trouble whipping crowds into an anti-Bush frenzy. Neither does former vice-president Al Gore. But what's the matter with the nominee himself? Mr. Bush is beset by a prisoner-abuse scandal, soaring gasoline prices and a war that's proving far more costly than many expected. Polls show Americans growing progressively more skeptical of the incumbent. Why aren't they warming up to Mr. Kerry?
To some extent, the hand-wringing among Democrats is overdone. The latest CBS News poll finds Mr. Kerry with 49-per-cent support among registered voters, compared with 41 per cent for Mr. Bush. The President's personal approval ratings are mired in the low 40s, a nadir for his presidency. Mr. Bush's recent efforts to recast his war leadership in a more positive light have had limited effect.
That said, the Kerry campaign's inherent weaknesses -- some stemming from the man, others from his message -- are becoming all too obvious.
First, the man. Whatever Bill Clinton had in abundance -- call it charisma, charm or sex appeal -- Mr. Kerry lacks to an equal degree. Even in his home state, observers say, the senator is respected rather than liked, let alone loved. Whereas Mr. Clinton as president struggled to keep his humanity in check, Mr. Kerry at times seems barely human. His "band of brothers" routine, in which former Vietnam comrades-in-arms praise his leadership and character, is politically effective. But it's no substitute for likeability. Even Mr. Bush, charisma-challenged in his own right, appears more comfortable in his skin.
Next, the message. As a Democrat facing a war president, Mr. Kerry has sought to capitalize on his Vietnam war heroism, which contrasts starkly with Mr. Bush's spotty attendance in the Texas Air National Guard. However, his fellow veterans don't seem to be hearing Mr. Kerry's message. Polls show they overwhelmingly prefer Mr. Bush, by 54 per cent to 40.
That may be because of Mr. Kerry's astonishingly clumsy handling of his anti-war activities after he returned from Vietnam, including the question of whether he actually threw away his medals (he didn't). Or it may be because veterans simply don't know where he stands. Mr. Kerry supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, then voted against appropriations for the reconstruction. The Democratic nominee now insists America must stay the course. But many Republicans, whose votes he needs to win the presidency, will wonder whether he means it.
At the same time, many left-leaning Democrats are increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Kerry's hawkishness, which they deem too close to the White House. They see critics such as Mr. Dean and Mr. Gore spitting fire at Mr. Bush's foreign policy, on which he has based his entire bid for re-election, while Mr. Kerry holds back.
Increasingly, the senator is in a bind. If he attacks Mr. Bush full-bore, he risks alienating veterans and military families. If he doesn't, he runs a growing risk of missing the wave of anti-Bush sentiment that is fuelling liberal activism across the country. Bad news for Mr. Bush, counterintuitive though this may seem, is not necessarily good news for Mr. Kerry.
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