Don Gonyea, NPR
John Kerry speaks to residents of Green Bay, Wis., at one of his "front porch meetings."» View Enlargement
Green Bay, Wis. — Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign has done a lot of events like this one. They call them "Front Porch Meetings," a kind of downsized town hall. Sometimes, the "front porch" is a back yard, where all the neighbors can get a close look at a candidate many are still just getting to know.
The Green Bay event is typical, taking place at the home of Susan Laabs and her three children on a tree-lined block of Jackson Street in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood. Even the threat of rain cannot diminish the buzz on the street as word of Kerry's visit gets around the block.
The Laabs lawn features wooden, white folding chairs. There's a child's basketball hoop off to one side and a trellis covered with some greenery — not easily identifiable. More important, the American flag is out and hanging next to the back door.
A crowd is gathering. People are unusually aware of the presidential contest this year. Wisconsin is a swing state where Al Gore barely eked out a victory in 2000, and this neighborhood is far from a Democratic stronghold. This block has Bush-Cheney signs in several front yards.
So Kerry starts out with a safe reference. This is a town where even the most strongly held political views take a back seat to love for the Green Bay Packers. The candidate quotes their legendary coach, Vince Lombardi: "Who you are depends on what you do with what you have."
It's an interesting thought, especially for Kerry. With less than 10 weeks to go to Election Day, plenty of Americans are still asking who he is — including some who say they support him.
Kerry takes questions from about 100 of Laabs' neighbors, squeezed in between the house and the garage. Such sessions are standard procedure for both Kerry and President Bush, the man he wants to replace. But the way they handle them is a study in contrasts.
To be sure, each finds the crowds overwhelmingly friendly. But the president's audiences have been screened and produce the hardcore faithful, and the "Ask President Bush" sessions are more testimonial than interrogating. The questioners verge on adoring, and they take their chance to thank the president and express their support.
Kerry's Q-and-A sessions with voters are more complicated. There's an air of curiosity more than awe. The questions are about getting information and filling in blanks.
In the backyard in Green Bay, Kerry is asked by one man, "Why are you a Democrat?" It's hard to imagine a corresponding question being put to the president. But for Democrats, saying you are a Democrat can mean different things. This particular neighbor wants to know where Kerry is coming from, and he may not have a specific issue in mind.
Another woman, describing herself as middle class, wants to know how a candidate from a life of privilege can possible relate to her life. She is not hostile, although she sounds just a bit suspicious. Kerry says his parents taught him middle class values and remembers that in college he made money loading trucks as a member of the Teamsters.
These are not unfriendly questions, but they may be worrisome to the Kerry camp. Few doubt that Kerry can answer policy puzzlers with the best of his Senate colleagues. But complex policy questions are rarely asked on the campaign trail. What voters do want to know is what makes a candidate tick.
A Los Angeles Times poll out this week asks respondents whether President Bush deserves re-election. By a hair's breadth (49% to 47%), the plurality says no. But when asked whom they are voting for in November, Bush or Kerry, the incumbent comes out slightly ahead. Both results are within the margin of error, but the poll highlights Kerry's problem. The president is vulnerable, but the challenger has yet to close his sale.
Moreover, this poll and others indicate that voters still undecided about their November choice are more negative than positive about the direction of the country. Nonetheless, they are not willing to take the next step toward the alternative candidate.
And if voters still lack a keen sense of Kerry, who can be surprised when attacks such as those of the self-styled Swift Boat Veterans for Truth give people pause?
Later this fall, Kerry will have a chance to address what's lacking when he debates the president in televised contests sure to draw enormous audiences. For now, he struggles to win the country over more gradually, even one backyard at a time.