Tricky John Kerry

Robert Novak
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Posted: Sep 04, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- One reason why Sen. John Kerry has precipitously toppled from being putative Democratic nominee for president to a potential also-ran was demonstrated at the conclusion of his grueling interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. It had nothing to do with Iraq or taxation but everything to do with the senator's credibility and likeability.

Moderator Tim Russert ended the hour-long program with the last blast from his massive research. Kerry was quoted by Vogue magazine last March as talking about George W. Bush's "lack of knowledge," and adding this: "He was two years behind me at Yale, and I knew him, and he's still the same guy." Implicitly, Kerry was saying the president was the same empty-headed, hard-drinking playboy he was in college. But when Russert twice asked Kerry just what he meant, he shrugged off these questions ("I believe that President Bush is a very likable fellow.").

The conclusion widely drawn from that exchange is that Kerry never knew Bush at Yale and that he simply fibbed to Vogue's interviewer in trying to denigrate the president. In fact, there is an eyewitness: George W. Bush. He tells aides he certainly did not know John Kerry at Yale. Kerry, the Vietnam War hero-turned-protester who out-debated front-running Republican William Weld in the 1996 Massachusetts Senate race, looks like a trickster running for president.

On Tuesday, Kerry was tricky again. "Re-launching" his candidacy by announcing it at Patriot's Point, S.C., he declared: "I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations." Kerry's vote, which seemed politically prudent at the time, was to authorize -- not to threaten -- force in Iraq.

Meeting privately Tuesday on another matter, a group of Democratic political operatives agreed that Kerry blew it that morning when interviewed by Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" program. Only a few months ago, Kerry was the presidential choice of establishment Democrats. He led the party's other eight candidates in the polls, and seemed the strongest challenger against President Bush. All this was predicated on getting his primary election season off to a winning start with being the sure primary winner in his neighboring state of New Hampshire Jan. 27.

Kerry spent just short of $6 million on his virtually uncontested (without a Republican opponent) 2002 Massachusetts re-election campaign in order to bombard southern New Hampshire through the Boston media market. A month after the Massachusetts election, a New Hampshire poll showed Kerry with 40 percent and Howard Dean with 9 percent. Kerry has eight regional offices in the state and paid 38 visits there over two and one-half years.

That explains the shock inside the Kerry camp when the Zogby Poll showed a 21-point lead by Dean on Aug. 27. While Kerry has certainly not abandoned New Hampshire, his campaign team has hastened to construct a backup position in South Carolina.

However, Kerry's opponents privately deride the switch of his Tuesday announcement from Boston to South Carolina, which holds its primary one week after New Hampshire. The Zogby Poll in July gave Kerry 5 percent in South Carolina for fifth place. He had not been in that state for three months prior to his Tuesday announcement. The announcement from the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown generated chuckles among the Democratic lobbyists who met Tuesday.

These savvy Democrats used the words "arrogant" and "attitude" in describing what they felt what was wrong with their former front-runner. That may stem from Kerry's failure to come to grips with his ambivalence on the Iraq war. On "Meet the Press," Russert played a tape of Kerry addressing the Senate last Oct. 9 with a hard-line speech declaring Iraq "is capable of quickly producing weaponizing" of biological weapons that could be delivered against "the United States itself."

"That is exactly the point I'm making," Kerry replied to Russert. "We were given this information by our intelligence community." But as a senator, Kerry had access to the National Intelligence Estimate that was skeptical of Iraqi capability. Being tricky may no longer be as effective politically as it once was.