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Election 2004

Democrats scorn Bush, but will U.S. like Kerry?

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published April 12, 2004

Four words rarely uttered by Democrats fired up for the presidential election: "I love John Kerry."

In a presidential race raging full steam seven months before Election Day, Democrats across the country say they are united and energized. The passion, however, is much more about beating President Bush than electing Massachusetts Sen. Kerry.

"So far I'm not excited about Kerry, but I certainly know he'll be a much better president than the one we've got," said Gil Williams, a Democratic activist in Spring Hill who had backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

It's a remarkably common sentiment about a presumptive nominee who barrelled through primaries and caucuses with win after win. People tout Kerry's status as a Vietnam war hero, his foreign policy experience and his toughness. Rarely do they have much to say about his personal appeal or charisma.

Historians note that presidential elections are not always about personal likability. If voters always chose the candidate with whom they would rather have a beer or cup of coffee, Richard Nixon would never have made it into the White House.

Still, the lack of passion for Kerry has some people questioning Kerry's long-term strength against Bush. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh regularly reminds listeners that unlike with Bill Clinton, Democrats never call Limbaugh's show to extol Kerry; they call only to rail against Bush. Limbaugh suggests it's a sign of Kerry's weakness as a candidate, and some Democrats acknowledge their own worries.

"I'm surprised by the lackluster support for Kerry, and it concerns me a little," said Chris Eaton, a former Democratic state legislative candidate from St. Petersburg. He's not worried about ardent Democrats, but about swing voters.

"One of the fundamental things I was taught is you have to give people a reason to vote for someone, and not just against someone," said Eaton, who likes Kerry but preferred North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. "A lot of my friends who are moderates, centrist Republicans and independents, say to me, "I'm not happy with George W. Bush, but you haven't given me a reason to vote for your guy.' "

There are two basic concerns Democrats have about Kerry. Can the Boston Brahmin with a reputation for aloofness and a windy speaking style widely connect with Americans? And can Kerry define himself and his agenda before the Bush-Cheney campaign does it for him?

The campaign insists it will, starting soon with a new round of biographical ads.

"A lot of Americans don't know me yet," Kerry told reporters last week. "That's what we're about to get into."

Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination in early March after winning contests where exit polls consistently showed voters were far more concerned about experience and ability to beat Bush than personal traits such passion or empathy. Though much of the country is just starting to get to know Kerry, national polls and those of major swing states consistently point to a tight contest between Bush and Kerry.

"I believe people will come to like him immensely, but the fascinating thing is they don't know much about him now and they still want to vote for him," said Karen White, political director for Emily's List, a Democratic political group that aims to elect women.

But Kerry has faced a torrent of criticism from the Bush campaign and the GOP painting him as a flip-flopper eager to raise taxes and cut defense. In March, when the Bush-Cheney campaign spent $40-million on TV ads, the number of voters who said they viewed Kerry as "too liberal" jumped from 29 percent to 41 percent, according to the Gallup Organization.

While some Democrats grumbled that Kerry kept too low a profile at the crucial start of the general election campaign, it appears he will at least have the finances to fight back. His campaign raised more than $50-million in the first three months of the year, including $38-million in March. And several independently operating Democratic political groups are raising and spending millions to unseat Bush. David Eichenbaum, a Democratic consultant in Washington unconnected to the Kerry campaign, said the apparent lack of fire over Kerry should be neither surprising nor worrisome at this point.

"I don't think it's troubling because the Democrats' feelings about Bush are so intense. It's going to take time for them to get to know their nominee. Keep in mind he only established himself as the nominee a few weeks ago, and most Democrats haven't had a chance to get to know him yet. He's going to have to forge a connection with the American people."

Questions about his ability to connect with and excite voters have dogged the graying, 60-year-old senator for months. "Does Sen. Kerry have enough Elvis to beat George Bush?" is how Dan Rather put it at one debate.

But likability is an amorphous concept in politics that can convey warmth or sense of character or leadership skills.

Electability trumped likability in the Democratic primary. Despite Bush's homespun persona, many observers question whether personality will be a decisive factor for a polarized electorate.

"The reason incumbent presidents lose is because people decide they haven't governed well enough," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at Washington's American University.

Charisma and personal appeal help, of course, but Lichtman cited Nixon and the former President George Bush as examples where personal popularity was less significant. "Until late in the game, almost every woman out there saw Bush as the first boyfriend she ever dropped," he said. "The conventional wisdom was not that George Bush came back because he was likable, but because of his withering attacks against Dukakis."

Kerry campaign officials dismiss talk that the candidate has trouble connecting with voters. They point to the primary and caucus states where voters saw Kerry up close, took his measure, and handed him big wins.

In the final weeks before the caucuses, Kerry held town meeting after town meeting, sometimes staying hours late to ensure every last question was answered.

In Tampa, Democratic activist Fred Williams says he's eager for Kerry to start showing America more about who he is and what he stands for.

"It concerns me," he said, "because John Kerry has a message and great ideas about health care, and the environment and energy, but those things are going unnoticed so far."

[Last modified April 12, 2004, 01:05:27]

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