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The Race to the White House

A Trailing Kerry Has Been There, Won That

September 06, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — John F. Kerry has been here before.

Turning into the final eight weeks of the presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee faces doubts within his party and pundits increasingly skeptical of his chances against a resurgent President Bush, who seems to have momentum heading his way.

It is reminiscent of the Democratic race last winter, when Kerry was counted among the living dead and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was romping to the Democratic nomination -- or so it appeared.

But there is another contest that may be instructive, a campaign that political connoisseurs rate as one of the all-time classics: the 1996 U.S. Senate race between Kerry and Massachusetts' popular Republican governor, William F. Weld.

"A championship match between two world-class politicians," said John Martilla, a longtime Kerry friend and campaign advisor. Counterparts in the Weld camp agree.

Although no election is like any other, the close-quarters combat of that Senate race offers clues to how the Democratic nominee operates under pressure, the steps he will take to win -- and suggests why Democrats, nervous as some may be, are counting on another Kerry comeback.

With his reelection bid lagging -- polls had Kerry trailing Weld in August by 8 percentage points -- the senator abruptly shed one of his top aides and replaced him with a pugnacious ad man who crafted a more partisan message emphasizing pocketbook issues. Kerry worked to overcome his stuffy reputation by revealing a more personal and humble side to voters. He dug into his wallet even though it meant ignoring the spending limits he originally agreed to abide by. And he fiercely defended his Vietnam War record when his credibility was called into question.

Each was identical to steps Kerry would take years later as he rallied from behind to capture the Democratic presidential nomination and, more recently, fend off charges he exaggerated his Vietnam combat record.

"He's at his best when he's cornered," said Paul Watanabe, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and a longtime Kerry watcher. "Putting him in that fighting mode is key."

The 1996 contest revealed a steel core within Kerry, observers say, along with an agile mind and tenacity that carried him through eight arduous debates. Afterward, Weld commemorated their exchanges with the gift of an actual kitchen sink -- reflecting everything the two had thrown at each other.

"He was on the ropes throughout a lot of the campaign," Virginia Buckingham, Weld's campaign manager, said of Kerry. "To the extent he felt it, it never showed."

Many Republicans are less admiring of the senator's willingness to break a spending agreement he reached with Weld in the summer of 1996.

The two, both advocates of campaign finance reform, sat down in the living room of Kerry's Beacon Hill home and negotiated the $5-million spending cap, widely praised as a high-minded example of the way politics should be practiced. The notion was to elevate ideas over dollars and civility over the numbing exchange of advertised insults -- or so it was hoped.

By the time November rolled around, the agreement was shattered. Kerry was pouring tens of thousands of family dollars into the campaign, saturating the airwaves with ads promoting President Clinton's support and tarring the moderate Weld as a right-wing extremist.

Kerry, who trailed Weld in fundraising when he agreed to the cap, said the governor was the first to breach their understanding. He pointed to a deal that Weld had made with his advertising strategists, lowering their commissions to free more money for TV air time.

Weld and others disputed the assertion. "I don't believe that the level of advertising commissions was discussed in the context of the spending cap, any more than other campaign expenses," the former governor said in an interview.

To Rob Gray, Weld's campaign spokesman, the details were immaterial. Kerry's decision to blow through the spending ceiling was decisive, he said, and showed that Kerry would "do anything to win."

To Democrats, ravenous to defeat Bush on Nov. 2, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Massachusetts had never seen a politician quite like William Weld.

For one thing, he was a successful Republican in a state where the GOP has long been little more than a niche party. Witty and outgoing, he was an eccentric relief after the famously uptight Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. (Never mind that Weld grew up on a Long Island estate, married a Roosevelt and lived in tony Cambridge.)

He earned his reputation as a corruption-busting U.S. attorney. But as governor, Weld impishly decorated his State House office with a portrait of James Michael Curly, the famously crooked "rascal king" of state politics who once campaigned from a jail cell. A fervent rock 'n' roll devotee, Weld might have been the highest-elected Deadhead in America.

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