Still reeling from his loss to US President George W. Bush on Tuesday, Senator John Kerry is being urged by top advisors and friends to take a high-profile role as the Democratic Party grapples with issues like selecting its next chairman and shaping its identity and course.
Unlike Al Gore, who made a tortured exit from the public stage after his loss to Bush four years ago, Kerry has a Senate seat to return to and is under no pressure to disappear from view for the sake of national unity and the legitimacy of the presidency, his advisors say. They argue that his continuing presence in the Senate gives him a natural role in determining how Democrats deal with the White House.
"If President Bush indeed wants to earn the support of people who supported Kerry, then he'll probably have to deal with Kerry," said Mike McCurry, who was a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. "The question for Kerry is in some ways the same as for Bush: Does the president want to lead by establishing some bipartisan consensus in the center, or does he want to govern from the ideological right? Kerry would be the person that could help him accomplish that, but if not, there will be a hunger for someone to stand up to Bush."
Kerry's confidants pointed to his e-mail list of 2.6 million supporters -- which helped him raise more than US$249 million, a record for a presidential challenger -- as a major asset that Kerry could harness to project his influence well beyond the Senate chamber, and not just in financial terms. They said one option would be to set up a new organization the way Howard Dean did with his political action group, Democracy for America, after his defeat in the Democratic primaries.
"All those people are looking for guidance," said David Thorne, Kerry's best friend, who also oversaw the campaign's Internet operation.
Cameron Kerry, the senator's brother, said, "Fifty-five million people voted for him; they need a voice, and he can be their voice. The discussion of how best to do that is ongoing. He's certainly not going to just walk away and lick his wounds."
But others cautioned that Kerry had little time to waste. Senate Democrats are already lining up behind Senator Harry Reid and Senator Richard Durbin as new leaders. And with Senator Hillary Clinton, vice presidential candidate John Edwards and Dean in waiting as potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2008, Kerry is likely to have stiff competition for the party's helm.
Moreover, he will have to fend off those who argue that he is a poor choice for the party's public face, having failed to connect with many voters on bread-and-butter Democratic issues like jobs and healthcare, some Democratic strategists said.
"I doubt if any of the contenders would accede to Kerry as the head of the party," said Bob Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a liberal group. "He does have this added problem of, when you lost, it does put a tarnish on things, even when you got the most votes of any losing candidate ever. Plus, Democrats are pretty famous for eating their wounded."