Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Can John Kerry hold on to his lead?

By W. Scott Thompson

Harold Wilson, that British politician more canny than admired, usefully reminded his audience that things can change very quickly in politics.

"A week is a long time," he said, in politics, and we have seen this over and over in the American scene these past months.

After all, only nine weeks ago former vice president Al Gore blessed the insurgent campaign of Howard Dean and most pundits thought the race was over. All that was needed was the anointing of the former Vermont governor as Democratic party standard-bearer to take on US President George W. Bush in November.

Overnight Senator John Kerry, whose campaign had almost imploded late last year, turned the race upside down by winning big in Iowa's caucuses and then the weeks following in New Hampshire, Missouri and other primaries -- not only showing he has the "Big Mo" (or momentum) essential for winning in America, but a hammerlock on the nomination.

Or so it looks. After all, Senator Joe Lieberman has withdrawn, Wesley Clark's hopes are forlorn and John Edwards is resting his case on a single win, in the state of his birth.

But can it happen again? Dean's hold looked airtight until folks actually went to the polls. He had money to burn and endorsements from across the country, and now he is barely maintaining viability as a serious candidate. What could go wrong with Kerry's campaign at this point, and are there any implications for Asia?

Not a lot, but no one yet considers it over. The lanky and experienced Massachusetts senator has money to burn. No one wants to say it, but his wife's near billion-dollar fortune at the very least permits him to spend all his own, more modest, fortune to smooth his way. She can't shovel money directly into his campaign, but the mere fact of her fortune gives confidence to other contributors or lenders that they're backing a winner. He has seemingly unlimited self-confidence, despite many trip-ups in his long career.

But no senator has won the keys to the White House since John F. Kennedy.

There's a reason why senators don't tend to win. They've been on the record for too long on too many issues. There are too many interest groups they have had to cultivate and satiate to stay in politics. Sam Nunn, a powerful senator from Georgia who didn't even have to face serious re-election opposition, left the Senate in 1996 because he tired of spending his evenings entertaining his major supporters and running over to the Senate to vote. At the prime of life, he wanted to rediscover his family.

The real issue that Kerry must resolve is, however, character. Now that he is the front-runner, he must not only answer to all the charges of serving special interests that have risen and will still rise, he has to satisfy the public that he is, not to put too fine a point on it, an honorable man. There are questions.

Kerry has managed to straddle many issues and so it is difficult to discern his real beliefs -- other than in himself. He votes for the war in Iraq so he doesn't look "wet" and then votes against Pentagon budget rises, so he can please the liberal Democrats, who give him one of their highest ratings. When he looks at an acquaintance, he always seems to be looking just past, to see if someone more important lurks behind his interlocutor. Of course that's just standard politics. But people want something more.

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