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Thursday, April 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Opportunity knocks Kerry for a loop

By Collin Levey
Special to The Times

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In case you've been busy getting some fresh air, we seem to have hit a new phase in the presidential contest. From Manhattan to Louisiana, the early patterns of the candidates are beginning to settle in for voters, and they're looking curiously powerful against the tide of news.

By all accounts, April has proved the cruelest month so far for the administration in the campaign: The news from Iraq has been unsettling and the innuendoes about Bush's National Guard service are becoming more strident. Thugs continued to target Fallujah while Spain and its minions announced the withdrawal of troops. President Bush held a tense press conference to restate the U.S. commitment to see things through.

There can be little doubt that this period marked a phase of opportunity for Sen. John Kerry to step up, suggest alternatives and look presidential. In addition to the bad news from overseas, the administration has made some boneheaded moves of its own, including the pointless harping on Kerry's release of military records and questioning how badly he was really injured to get those Purple Hearts of his.

Trying to beat Kerry at his own back-to-Vietnam strategy is a bad plan for a war president who has proved himself far more recently. But weirdly, instead of a coup for Kerry, the most recent national polls showed Bush as the beneficiary of a significant uptick in his direction. And, as The Washington Post noted, despite Democratic claims that the swing was due to a massive advertising blitz by the Bush re-election folks, the rebound happened in the states not targeted by the ads.

Many have credited the numbers to the natural gathering-back response of a country that feels itself again under attack. And indeed, the sense of unease about the progress in Iraq may be no less present, but it works against Kerry in this scenario. Less than half of the folks in a recent poll thought the candidate had qualities of "consistency" and "tenacity," a far cry from Bush's 80 percent.

Those who dislike Bush's handling of the war want a red-blooded alternative. Instead, when the front page of The New York Times found the Boston Brahmin doing a "man of the people" routine in a mine, his hardhat with a headlamp made him look mostly like a nice, befuddled tourist gone spelunking.

It gets worse for Kerry, too. Since his slippery performance in a "Meet the Press" interview earlier this month, many in his own party seem to have lost their patience with the candidate, seeing him as erratic and fussy. (His penchant for expensive haircuts doesn't help him seem particularly down-to-earth.) New York's free weekly, The Village Voice, known as a leftist forum of the downtown urban scene, even ran a recent op-ed suggesting the Democrats should try to rustle up someone else — like Howard Dean? — before the convention.

Those are pipe dreams. The buyers' remorse phenomenon hasn't been lost on several Democrats running for election in the South, who have been keeping Kerry at arm's length. And despite the Dems' flirtation with the idea that they could count to 270 electoral votes without the South, the phenomenon doesn't bode well for Kerry's crossover appeal to those undecideds out there.

Kerry, lest we forget, took an unusual trajectory to the nomination. He began as the presumed leader, spent most of the campaign in the basement and then rallied stunningly after his early victory in Iowa and Dean's self-immolation. The trouble is, he began to believe in his own whiff of inevitability. Some people wear self-assurance well, but Kerry isn't among them.

Much as Americans revere ambition, the stories of the Boston Brahmin's teenage political ambitions strike most people as too premeditated and phony to admire. The same instinct is what irks people about the throwing of other veterans' medals or the relentless promotion of his Vietnam tours — that he sees them as currency and street cred.

The public is more committed to the task in Iraq than the media are, and they know experience is important now. Kerry is trying to provide that, but he never will create momentum with such a backward-looking strategy. Speaking recently from the Kerry campaign trail, Vietnam veteran and former senator Max Cleland remarked that, "The Bush campaign is trying to define Kerry now, but for my money the defining moment is 35 years ago." Now if we could just get a straight answer on the 34 years since.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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