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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

'Getting Fired Up' Seen as Key for Kerry

With specific attacks on Bush's handling of Iraq, Democrats feel they are 'hitting stride.'

September 26, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The audience was still on its feet, whooping and applauding Sen. John F. Kerry's speech on Iraq last Monday at New York University, when a beaming Teresa Heinz Kerry walked on stage and gave her husband a kiss and an embrace.

For months, the Democratic presidential candidate had been struggling to delineate his differences with President Bush on Iraq, only to get tangled up in confusing statements and remain on the defensive because of his vote two years ago to authorize the president to use force against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Kerry's wife, at least, felt he had finally hit it out of the park.

"Didn't he rock or what?" Heinz Kerry asked hundreds of cheering supporters that night at a Midtown Manhattan fundraiser.

It was unclear whether Kerry's assertion that Bush created "a crisis of historic proportions" in Iraq would help him regain political traction after a late summer slide during which his Vietnam War record took a pounding and Democrats fretted that the campaign had lost its way.

But for the first time in weeks, the Massachusetts senator seemed to be framing the campaign debate on his terms.

Throughout the week, he pressed his case against the president's handling of the war, turning questions about his own stances on Iraq back to attacks on Bush's leadership. Kerry was tying his specific criticisms to a larger argument: The president lacks judgment. On Friday, he detailed a plan to combat terrorism while emphasizing his view that the invasion of Iraq was a "profound diversion" from that cause.

His campaign demonstrated its most nimble footing yet, firing back at barbs from Bush with new television commercials cut overnight.

The Democrat also sought to show his lighter side, trading quips with late-night comedian David Letterman, bantering with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa on their morning talk show and peppering his campaign speech with one-liners.

"I've been in something like 47 states in the United States of America over the last two years," he told supporters in Orlando on Tuesday. "George Bush has been traveling in one state: denial."

Still, with less than 40 days left until the election, the question that surrounded the Kerry camp was whether his newfound focus had come soon enough -- and whether he could sustain it.

Anxious Democrats noted that throughout the campaign, Kerry had often settled on a new theme, only to discard it in favor of a different message, whether it be "The Real Deal," "Let America be America" or "W is for wrong."

"There's no consistency to the message, no theme to the pudding," said Democratic strategist Garry South.

Bush's campaign has stayed firmly on message, depicting Kerry as vacillating and irresolute.

South called Kerry's recent efforts "a good start" but added, "He has to perform at this level every single day [until the Nov. 2 vote] in order to pull this out."

Among Kerry's aides, there's talk lately that it "feels like Iowa" -- as in the Iowa caucuses, which the senator won decisively in January after many analysts had written him off.

That upbeat mood permeated a campaign that had been besieged by a volley of attacks on Kerry's wartime service and reports of internal upheaval.

Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry spoke of "a sense we really are hitting stride and making some real strong arguments now."

At least, Kerry looked like he was having more fun.

He joked with Philbin, the original host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," about the negotiations for the upcoming presidential debates: "The big hang-up was George Bush wanted to get a lifeline system, you know, so he could call somebody."

By the next day, a nagging cold had caught up with the candidate. When he took the microphone at a town hall meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla., his scratchy voice was barely audible.

But buoyed by a lively audience, Kerry spoke for an hour and a half, knocking his rival's policies with more one-liners, a departure from his often meandering style.

When Louis Heller, 81, noted that many older people "don't want to change horses in midstream," Kerry interjected, "when your horse is drowning in midstream, it's a good time to shift."

Later he accused the Bush administration of not doing enough to combat Al Qaeda and said the terrorist group's leader, Osama bin Laden, "has become Osama Been Forgotten." As the audience laughed and cheered, Kerry grinned.

"See what's happening -- I'm getting fired up," he said. "My voice is getting stronger."

His quest for the presidency might depend on that figuratively becoming true.

*

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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