Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Eternal Optimist

The Eternal Optimist
John Kerry is on the road again, listing excuses for losing in 2004 and looking like a 2008 campaigner

It seemed as if the campaign had never ended. There was John Kerry standing on a chair in a blue neighborhood of Atlanta, in the Democrat-friendly tavern Manuel's, speaking to 100 folks, many of them wearing Kerry-Edwards T shirts. The Massachusetts Senator insisted that he wasn't "one to lick wounds," but then he did: he noted that Bush had won with the smallest percentage margin ever for an incumbent and complained that the Republican team had six years to develop its electoral strategy while his had only eight months. And although he claimed that "my focus is not four years from now," he made sure his audience knew just how viable a candidate he had been--and could be again. "We actually won in the battleground states," Kerry said, adding that his loss in Ohio was so close that if "half the people ... at an Ohio State football game" had voted differently, he would be in the Oval Office now.

Kerry's words and moves suggest that he thinks Nov. 2, 2004, was merely a detour on his road to the White House. He has been holding private dinners with potential fund raisers and policy advisers, signaling he might run again and blaming his political strategists for many of the mistakes his campaign made last year, such as not responding swiftly to ads attacking his Vietnam service. He has set up a political-action committee to finance his travels around the country, which will include stops in 20 cities over the next two months to give speeches and headline fund raisers for other Democrats. And he is constantly e-mailing his list of more than 3 million supporters to promote causes he championed as a candidate, like expanding health insurance to all children and preventing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Kerry plans to write a book on his views on national security.

Besides stumping and writing, Kerry is hoping to curry favor within the party by donating some of the $14 million left over from his campaign fund. He offered a vote of confidence to former rival Howard Dean, giving the national party $1 million when Dean took over as chairman. He donated $250,000 to the recount effort of Christine Gregoire, who eventually won a very close Governor's race in Washington. Venturing into local politics, he will probably endorse Antonio Villaraigosa in a runoff election for mayor in L.A., choosing a loyal supporter over incumbent James Hahn. "He gets to travel and gets to pick up IOUs," says former party chairman Steve Grossman, a Boston fund raiser who served as Dean's campaign chairman.

Kerry is also embracing the Senate with new fervor. Derided as an absentee Senator by Bush and other critics in 2004, Kerry seems almost everywhere on Capitol Hill these days, introducing bills to expand health care to all children, enlarge the military by 40,000 troops and rewrite election laws to allow any citizen to register to vote on Election Day. "I'm in a position to be more effective on these issues," he says. But some of his powerful colleagues disagree. In a meeting with labor leaders, Kerry questioned whether Democrats had a coherent message opposing Bush's Social Security plan, annoying Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who told Kerry not to lecture him on strategy, considering his failures in the presidential campaign. And some Democrats on Capitol Hill privately scoff at the idea that Kerry--never particularly popular in the Senate--can expect a leadership role just because he won 59 million votes last year. "In terms of having a louder voice in the Senate," says a Senate Democratic staff member, "I seriously doubt that."

In addition, Kerry faces an also-ran problem. "It's been a long time since the Democratic Party gave somebody a second chance," says Grossman. "That's a big challenge to overcome." But it might not be the biggest. Kerry may find that there is little he or any other contender can do to get his party's nomination if Hillary Clinton decides to run. The New York Senator holds a commanding lead in every poll of Democratic voters, and some major party fund raisers are saying they expect her to have a huge financial advantage over her opponents. "She'll crush them all," says a lobbyist who plans to raise funds for 2008 candidates.

But Kerry, for now, doesn't seem daunted. Discussing his health-care bill at a town-hall meeting in Atlanta, he offered advice on how to get it passed that seemed a nod toward his future. "We had a very, very close race," he said. "I've learned in politics that you don't stop. You've got to keep going."


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