Northern Exposure

Ah, winter in New Hampshire: bitter-cold weather, SUVs hurtling up I-93 to the ski slopes, and White House wannabes wooing voters in the nation's first presidential primary with money and promises. And poetry.

Poetry? That's how the folks gathered in a Londonderry backyard to support Mary Tetreau, a candidate for state representative, were courted during a campaign swing by the unsung poet laureate of Massachusetts politics, U.S. Senator John F. Kerry. Kerry “revealed his poetic skills, reading a poem of his own composition” to the luckless assembly, according to Democracy in Action, which tracks the New Hampshire comings and goings of presidential candidates.

By now, Kerry's craggy countenance has become nearly as familiar a sight in the Granite State as its natural counterpart, the Old Man of the Mountain. Taking advantage of a busy election year for New Hampshire state and national offices and the lack of a Republican challenger for his own Senate seat, Kerry spent at least 10 days north of the border last year campaigning for Democrats including Tetreau, executive council candidate John Kacavas, state Senate hopeful Dennis Kalob, and congressional candidates Martha Fuller Clark and Katrina Swett. Even when the Young Man of the Mountain couldn't be there in person, his money was. State Representative Beth Rodd, a Bradford Democrat, got an unsolicited donation of 400 posters from Kerry's organization to use in her reelection bid.

Then again, neither Kerry's cash nor his charisma proved especially effective at winning friends and influencing people. Tetreau, Kacavas, Kalob, Clark, and Swett all lost their races amid a statewide wipeout for Democrats. And while Rodd, also a narrow loser, told the Concord Monitor that she appreciated Kerry's help, those 400 posters weren't enough to buy him her support in the 2004 presidential primary, now one year away. “It's too early to make a decision about who I'd support,” she said.

But it's not too early for John Kerry to start worrying about what New Hampshire might hold in store for his early-blossoming presidential bid.

On paper, it should be a layup. Polling just prior to Al Gore's withdrawal from contention in December showed Kerry to be a clear front-runner in a Gore-free race. Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Paul Tsongas in 1992 demonstrated the edge a Massachusetts politician gets over the rest of the New Hampshire field in name recognition alone. In a state where political activists, milking every drop from their quadrennial 15 minutes of power, require intense and repeated stroking, Kerry has been a fixture for years, delivering speeches — call them epic prose poems, if you prefer — at local party functions. Then there's the striking physical presence of the tall, well-tailored, expensively coifed Kerry, which prompts even a top New Hampshire Republican to concede, “He looks like he could be president.” All this, plus Kerry's impressive credentials as a decorated Vietnam veteran and Senate foreign-policy expert, not to mention the untold millions from his ketchup-heiress wife's fortune ready to be poured into a showdown with George W. Bush, makes a persuasive argument to New Hampshire Democrats desperate for a winner. Doesn't it?

Not necessarily. The same polling that puts Kerry out front shows him lagging behind two likely rivals in name recognition. His aggressive schedule of early visits to the state has been trumped by another neighboring politician, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who offers a message potentially better suited to an electorate that places foreign-policy issues toward the bottom of its agenda. A long-winded fence straddler in a state that prefers straight talkers, Kerry has to overcome early doubts about the consistency and reliability of his positions on key issues before he can appeal to voters who value strength and trustworthiness. Then there's that pesky likeableness factor, the chronic failure to connect with people that has earned Kerry a boilerplate adjective in published description after published description: aloof.

“There's just not the passion for him,” says Dick Bennett of the American Research Group, a Manchester-based polling firm. “It's a personality thing with Kerry. And in politics, there are some things you just can't fix.”

Statewide polling in November by Bennett's firm and a December survey by Marist College outline the extent of Kerry's problem in New Hampshire. Eighty percent of the 600 respondents to the American Research Group poll said they were aware of Kerry. But that was good for only sixth place among Democrats, behind Senator Tom Daschle (91 percent), Congressman Richard Gephardt (92 percent), Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (98 percent), Senator Joe Lieberman (99 percent), and Gore (100 percent). Lieberman has been a regular visitor to New Hampshire, while Gephardt has built up an extensive network of local activists for whom he's raised money and campaigned. The poll also carried a warning about what might happen as other candidates become better known: Two-thirds of likely voters aware of Dean had a favorable view of him, the highest ratio of any candidate.

Indeed, it's Dean, the physician/politician, who seems the most in sync with the primary electorate (especially after having doubled Kerry's 2002 itinerary with more than 20 visits to New Hampshire). At the center of Dean's campaign is his success in Vermont providing what the likes of Kerry and Gephardt have been unable to deliver in Washington: affordable health insurance for children and needy adults. Quite a calling card to a Democratic electorate that considers affordable healthcare the number-one issue, according to the Marist poll.

Of course, Kerry has a little to say about healthcare, too. Very little. In a major speech last year to the New Hampshire Democratic Party's 100 Club, he spent most of his time talking about his wartime experiences and kept his healthcare analysis to a minimum: “We believe you guarantee health coverage for workers who lose their jobs.” Sounds like a truly forgettable haiku.

Meanwhile, the issues Kerry prefers to stress, such as foreign policy and crime prevention, rank near the bottom of the voters' priority list. “I think everybody is deeply concerned about jobs and the economy, and income security, job security, retirement security, and, finally, their physical, personal security, both in terms of the increase in crime that has taken place and the international security issues that we face,” Kerry says when asked by Boston magazine what he thinks is the most pressing issue on the minds of New Hampshire voters. “I think security in every facet . . . all of those are the most important issues on people's minds today, and I'm going to address every single one of them.”

Compare that Beltway bouillabaisse with Dean's punchy rebuttal, and consider how the contrast might play to progressive Democrats in a state with limited social services, a rigid antitax climate, and a budget hemorrhaging red ink. “John Kerry's never had to balance a budget. I have,” Dean says. “John Kerry has never delivered healthcare to anybody. I have. Being a governor is an enormous advantage. Message matters.”

True enough in the New Hampshire primary, where people traditionally like to send a message with their votes. And if the message they want to send a year from now is distaste for the Bush administration's handling of the war, Kerry's hard work positioning himself as a leading Democratic scold on foreign policy may pay off. The strategy was on full display at the 100 Club banquet, where Kerry regaled the crowd with sarcastic references to the lack of service in Vietnam by leading Republican hawks.

One wonders if this appeal to the Democratic Party's antiwar wing in New Hampshire was diluted five months later, however, when the senator denounced “Vietnam-era bans that keep CIA and FBI recruiters off too many Ivy League campuses.” Placing his critique of the war at the heart of his campaign could become downright problematic for Kerry once voters learn more about his bet-hedging vote to support the resolution authorizing Bush to attack Iraq. It's the sort of straddling typical of Kerry's career, a landscape in which oases of courageous antiwar activism and environmental protectionism are surrounded by a desert of ambiguity on issues such as affirmative action, education reform, and the death penalty.

That record raises doubts about Kerry's ability to re-create the “straight-talk” atmospherics that propelled his friend Senator John McCain to victory in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary. No doubt, it's smart to want to do so. The Marist poll asked likely Democratic primary voters which qualities were most important in a presidential candidate. “Honest and trustworthy,” “a strong leader,” and “stands up for his beliefs” were atop the list. But as Dartmouth College professor of government Linda Fowler notes, new information about candidates “counts very heavily” among primary voters, and “I don't think people up here really know very much about [Kerry].” If Dean is any indication, Kerry's rivals won't hesitate to make sure that by primary day, January 27, 2004, voters are provided with all sorts of information about Kerry's taste for waffle. “I'm direct,” says Dean, who nearly lost his seat after signing the nation's first law allowing gays and lesbians to form civil unions. “I've taken some very tough political stands because I thought it was the right thing to do. I'm prepared to match my record against anybody else running for president, war hero or not.”

No, the road to cover-boy status coming out of New Hampshire won't be easy for John Kerry. Gobs of money, plus endless hours spent massaging activists and listening earnestly to countersitters in rustic diners, will help the cause. But it may be that come next winter, Kerry will be privately hoping for something he dare not admit publicly: a decision by nonregional candidates, such as Gephardt or Senator John Edwards, to blow off New Hampshire completely and focus their energy on the rush of primaries that come afterward. That would give Kerry a way out of a potential lose-lose scenario for him in New Hampshire. Win it handily and, as Fowler observes, “Everybody's gonna say, 'Well, of course.'” Win it narrowly or lose outright, and he's pathetic toast.

In short, there may be rough poetic justice up in SUV country awaiting the senator who tried and failed last year to make those gas-guzzlers more fuel efficient. Perhaps it sounds something like this:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
A loss in New Hampshire
And John Kerry's through.