On US television they call it "stunting": the publicity-seeking novelty aimed at luring viewers back to a series they haven't watched for months. Think cameo appearances by Brad Pitt in Friends.
On Tuesday, Senator John Kerry's campaign for the US presidency did some stunting of its own. He too introduced a new character, in the hope that Americans who hadn't tuned in for a while would pay attention once more. He announced his running mate, North Carolina Senator John Edwards.
The move will certainly achieve what TV stunts aim for: a sudden surge in viewer interest. For the next few days, the Kerry campaign will garner more coverage than it has since the winter victories in Iowa and New Hampshire that set him on the road to the Democratic nomination. That will help, but will it be enough? This, after all, is a contest whose impact will be felt around the world; the stakes could not be higher. There are millions of people, far beyond America's shores, praying for change in November. Many of them are wondering: Is John Kerry doing enough to beat President George W. Bush?
Over the next few days the signs
will be positive. Tuesday's decision was Kerry's first in the national spotlight, and he made the right one. If he had chosen either of the other two men said to be on his shortlist, we would now have
grave reason to doubt his will to win. Representative Dick Gephardt and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack would have been cosier choices; they are closer to Kerry in age and temperament. But neither would add luster or excitement to a campaign that needs both.
The boyish-looking Edwards fought Kerry well in the primary campaign, serving up the best stump speech of any candidate.
"He has vim and vigor, he's a great campaigner and a very charismatic guy," said Eli Attie, one-time aide to former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore.
In other words, Kerry has chosen a man utterly unlike himself. The positive spin is that Edwards complements Kerry, filling in his gaps. The new man's southern roots open up a region that might otherwise be closed to New Englander Kerry. His boyish looks are an asset, too. At 51, Edwards is only nine years Kerry's junior, but compared with the grey-haired, granite-faced senator he appears a lot younger. Even Edwards' inexperience relative to the current vice-president is susceptible to a positive spin. It proves that Kerry doesn't need a tutor -- unlike Bush who, according to Attie, "needed Cheney on the ticket in 2000 to ensure he didn't screw up."
It's to Kerry's credit that he recognized all these strengths in Edwards -- for most of them reflect weaknesses in his own candidacy.
Edwards' southern geography highlights Kerry's handicap as a northeastern liberal. Not since 1960 and his hero, former president John F. Kennedy, has a candidate with that profile won the White House.
Edwards' energy on the stump is a reminder that the would-be president
can still be wooden, dour and unspontaneous. Only rarely does Kerry ad-lib enough to sound like a real person.
"He is somebody whose speech was formed in boarding schools," Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg recently told the Boston Globe. That matters for any challenger hoping to prise out Bush who, despite his own highly privileged background, has successfully cultivated a folksy, regular
Joe persona -- partly by peppering
his speech with southern idioms, what Nunberg calls "faux Bubba-isms." In 2000, Gore failed the barbecue test: which candidate would most Americans like to have over for an afternoon in the garden? Edwards would probably win that contest against Bush, but Kerry would not.
Admittedly, what mattered in 2000 might not matter at all in 2004. In a post-Sept. 11 era, US voters may be looking for something more substantial than warmth and chumminess. But even here there are grounds to worry about Kerry. His statements of policy are not straightforward and clear but complex and nuanced. His defenders say that shows
a man who is subtle and thoughtful, weighing heavy questions seriously. But his enemies have been able to cast him as a man calculatedly placing himself on both sides of every issue -- voting in the senate to authorize the war on Iraq, for example, yet denouncing it on the campaign trail. Republicans have taken to turning up at Kerry rallies brandishing pairs of flip-flops -- to show the Democrat has flipped and flopped
on everything from the Middle East to gay marriage.
Some of those reverses have angered Democrats, too. They worry that Kerry
is rushing too fast from the left to the center ground, hugging Bush's positions too closely. They note his avoidance of any declaration that the Iraq war was a mistake, even though a CNN/USA Today poll last month found 82 percent of Democrats hold that view. Nor do all Democrats share his belief that the US should stay in Iraq to "finish the job," while others are disappointed by his recent endorsement of the Bush-Sharon plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- including a declaration of approval for the Israeli "security fence," which last October he condemned as a "barrier to peace."
The pessimists fear these are mistakes that, coupled with Kerry's personality defects, could cost him the presidency. But he has one hugely powerful asset: he is not Bush.
The president has been such a polarizing figure -- more hated than any predecessor, according to most polls -- that the motivation to unseat him is intense. Even if Kerry's official platform were identical to that of Bush, Democrats would work hard to get him elected.
Second, say some party strategists,
it might be smart to avoid exposure in areas which are at the mercy of external events. Iraq is so volatile that a sudden change on the ground could leave a
candidate badly wrong-footed. Besides, Kerry can allow events themselves to make the case for him: every time an American is captured or killed in Iraq, trust in Bush declines.
As for his lackluster manner, even here Democrats can see a silver lining. For one thing, fashions change. Come November, voters may want a leader who is steady and mature even if he can't light up a crowd. Others add that, much as the party faithful might wish Kerry would sound more like Michael Moore, the country doesn't need a left-wing firebrand right now. Americans have had four years of partisan, ideological government and they yearn for someone to unite the country.
"Kerry has the potential to be the president we really need," Attie said.
Finally, Democrats draw comfort from a fact of Kerry's biography that reads almost like a fable. Throughout his career, he has always been a slow starter -- but a great finisher. In this year's primaries, he was lagging behind until a matter of days before the Iowa vote -- and he won it handsomely. They reckon he has the power to repeat that trick now. There are hundreds of millions all over the world who hope that's right.
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