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Kerry Moves to Revive His Campaign

On several stops in New Hampshire, he offers a new populist theme in hopes of improving his flagging poll numbers in the Democratic race.

November 22, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.H. — Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kerry sought to reinvigorate his flagging campaign Friday by unveiling a new populist message and launching the first of several bus trips across New Hampshire.

The Massachusetts senator, who at various points in his campaign has stressed his expertise in foreign affairs and his background as a Vietnam War hero, pledged to spend his first days as President Bush's successor toiling for average Americans.

Among new proposals, he promised to curb special interests and laid out plans for a trust fund to protect federal education dollars. He also said he would quickly institute already unveiled plans to reduce health-care costs, close corporate loopholes and take better care of veterans.

Kerry's effort to revamp his campaign -- complete with placards bearing its new slogan, "The Real Deal" -- comes after he fired his campaign manager this month, which prompted the resignation of two other top aides. It also occurs as recent polls in New Hampshire, which holds its crucial primary Jan. 27, have shown Kerry trailing the front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, by more than 20 percentage points.

Kerry's new push seems to represent the most dramatic attempt by any of the nine Democratic presidential candidates to transform the substance and style of their campaigns. Speaking to high school students in Concord, Kerry acknowledged that his candidacy so far had not proceeded as planned.

"Let me tell you, running for president can be a difficult, humbling experience," he said.

Now Kerry must convince voters the message is sincere.

"I love watching candidates reinvent themselves," said J. Mark Wrighton, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "But New Hampshire voters will have to decide if he actually is a populist ... if this is the real John Kerry."

A year ago, Kerry was widely viewed as the Democrat most likely to emerge as the campaign's early front-runner. But Dean assumed that role -- his staunch opposition to Bush's push for war with Iraq won him a loyal following among Democratic activists.

Kerry, like several other Democratic contenders, has been forced to explain his vote in favor of the congressional resolution last year that authorized force against Iraq.

Kerry on Friday dismissed his deficit in the New Hampshire polls, saying, "This race is there to be won."

But if Kerry is to make up much ground, observers say, he must begin to show momentum soon.

"There's sort of a growing sense of inevitability about a Dean win," Wrighton said. "That heightens the urgency for the other candidates, and I think that urgency is reflected in the new Kerry campaign."

In his speech, Kerry said he faced "a tough political fight now," and he vowed to "work hard every single day to fight back and win."

That effort would include, he said, a series of "24-hour campaign days to meet voters where they live and where they work."

The Kerry campaign also is beefing up efforts in Iowa, adding about three-dozen new staffers, including veterans of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Iowa's precinct caucuses Jan. 19 are the first key battles in the primary contest. Recent polls in the state have shown Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri with a small lead over Dean, and Kerry running third.

Kerry said Friday that one of his first items of business, should he succeed Bush, would be to reinstate an order requiring that administration officials who leave office wait at least five years before lobbying government agencies.

President Clinton issued such an order early in his first term, then revoked it shortly before leaving office.

Currently, most former government officials can lobby their onetime colleagues after one year.

"We will end the sorry spectacle of George Bush's campaign manager selling access to contracts to rebuild Iraq," Kerry said. He was referring to Joe Allbaugh, who heads a firm created to help companies trying to win business contracts in Iraq.

The Bush administration has strongly denied that any government contracts for reconstructing Iraq have been awarded on the basis of political influence.

Kerry also said he would set up a new education trust fund that would make education money more difficult to dip into for other purposes, and he would offer four years of college tuition to students in exchange for two years of public service.

He promised to do more to protect the environment, to halve the budget deficit in four years, and in half a dozen ways to look out for average Americans while he accused Bush of favoring the rich and powerful.

Kerry also took an implicit swipe at Dean, who has been credited with successfully tapping into widespread ire among Democrats toward Bush.

Increasingly, Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, another Democratic presidential contender, have been arguing that a broader message is needed to defeat Bush.

"Americans without jobs, families who can't afford their health care, seniors, children, the poorest and weakest people in our country are relying on your vote," Kerry said. "Send them someone who offers answers, not just anger; solutions, not just slogans.... New Hampshire, in January, don't just send them a message. Send them a president."

After his speech, Kerry filed his official candidacy papers for the state's primary, then boarded a bus and headed for a chili feed -- the first of several such stops planned Friday and today.

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