- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 28, 2004

BOSTON. — John Kerry is nominated this week on a surge of anti-Bush feelings that became so intense Democrats told pollsters they were driven more by their hatred for the president than by any warm connection to the aloof Massachusetts liberal.

But hatred is an unpredictable political weapon that can backfire. Ask Howard Dean. Days before Mr. Kerry arrived here to accept the Democratic nod, he was told by the party’s elder statesmen an anti-Bush diatribe alone could not win back the White House. He had to can the hatred, cool the party’s passions and find a substantive vision for his campaign.

The often distant, emotionless Mr. Kerry clearly had some heavy lifting to do at the national convention this week to turn himself into a warmer, well-liked candidate that swing voters would actually want to vote for, senior party people told me. But first he had to stop bashing Mr. Bush and start talking about what he would do as president.

“Kerry has to give an extraordinary good speech,” said Democratic strategist Harold Ickes, a top White House adviser to President Clinton. “A lot of what is propelling him is just anti-Bush sentiment. But, in order to close the sale with the people, he needs to lay out where he wants to take the country.”

“The anti-Bush theme is not enough. It’s been a large part of his campaign. He’s been saying a lot of things, but it hasn’t come into focus,” Mr. Ickes told me just before the convention.

Mr. Ickes was also blunt about the senator’s weaknesses going into this convention and the final stages of the campaign. One, he says, is that despite 20 years in the Senate, Mr. Kerry never really achieved a national reputation for anything beyond being a usually reliable liberal vote out of 100 lawmakers. “There are a lot of uncommitted voters but they don’t know nearly enough about Kerry for him to close the deal. He is not a national senator. He was not a national personage,” Mr. Ickes said.

“The bad news for the president is that traditional swing voters are open to an alternative. The good news for the president is that Kerry is not that well known among people that they are prepared to say yes to him.”

Leon Panetta, Mr. Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, had similar advice for Mr. Kerry at the start of the convention. “They’ve got to keep the Bush-bashing down because basically that conveys the impression that the campaign’s about hate as opposed to hope,” Mr. Panetta told me.

“And they’ve got to keep the issues as close to the center as possible,” he added because the election will be decided by swing, middle-of-the-road voters. “Clearly the convention model they wanted to replicate is what Clinton did in 1992 and the momentum that followed Clinton’s convention speech” that paved the way to his election.

The early convention speeches by Mr. Clinton, Al Gore and others suggest Mr. Kerry has eased the convention’s hot rhetoric. But can he close the deal with voters with his own speech Thursday night?

No one ever accused Mr. Kerry of being a compelling speaker. In most pre-primary candidate forums, his lackluster podium performance paled compared to Howard Dean’s palpable antiwar anger that often lifted Democrats to their feet.

But Mr. Kerry faces other obstacles Mr. Bush’s campaign will exploit. How is it possible the senator could vote for the war resolution on Iraq to send our troops to war and then vote against the money to defend them? How could he vote for the anti-terrorism Patriot Act and then turn around and denounce it to curry favor with anti-war Dean voters? How could he vote against the death penalty for terrorists?

Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie and a team of party officials were here this week to recite Mr. Kerry’s 20-year voting record and to define him as a flipflopper who did not have the courage of his convictions. The Democrats were attempting an “extreme makeover” to cover up his real voting record and turn him into a Clinton-look-alike centrist, Mr. Gillespie told reporters this week.

Can it work? We’ll know from the post-convention polls. But there were deeper currents that trouble Democratic veterans:

First, the latest state-by-state polls show Mr. Bush now leads Mr. Kerry in the electoral count, the only number that really matters in the end.

Second, Mr. Kerry’s biggest regional weakness, in the Southern states, has gotten weaker. He pulled his ads out of Louisiana and Arkansas because polls show him running behind Mr. Bush in both states. North Carolina, running mate John Edwards’ home state, tilts heavily in Mr. Bush’s favor. The Gallup Poll this week shows Mr. Bush ahead in Florida by 4 points.

“Florida is close, but the rest of the South will stay with Bush because Southerners support him on Iraq and trust him more on the economy,” said Merle Black. the veteran southern political scientist at Georgia’s Emory University. If Mr. Bush sweeps the South, the Kerry-Edwards ticket will need to “take 70 percent of the remaining electoral college vote. That’s hard to do but it’s certainly possible,” Mr. Black told me.

Meanwhile, Democratic graybeards say Mr. Kerry needs to embrace some great idea larger than his political ambitions and more inspiring than his party’s ugly hatred for George Bush.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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