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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry has been a U.S. senator for nearly a quarter century and just five years ago, he was campaigning for the presidency. But despite the high profile, until recently, Kerry had been lying low. Lately, though, Kerry has emerged as a leading voice on some of the nation's most pressing issues.

NPR's David Welna tells us about a senator who after many years is hitting his stride.

DAVID WELNA: John Kerry seems to have shed his defensive and bombastic armor as he sits by the fireplace in his Senate office. He now wears the confidence of a senator in full.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I like what I'm doing. I'm very engaged. I'm feeling a terrific freedom in just sort of doing what I believe is important.

WELNA: Kerry has, in fact, played a leading role lately in some of the Senate's most important debates. Here he is prodding the Finance Committee he sits on to move health care legislation.

Sen. KERRY: We're going to pass health care. We are going to get this done. I've been confident of that all along. I'm confident of it now.

WELNA: And here's Kerry recently weighing in on the war in Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sen. KERRY: We now have to choose a smart way forward so that no one is ever compelled to ask whether we've made a mistake in staying.

WELNA: And here's Kerry again last week announcing a bipartisan initiative to come up with a filibuster-proof bill on climate change.

Sen. KERRY: We are going to reach out to colleagues to create the framework that we believe can get those 60 votes.

WELNA: It all seems a long way from that day in July 2004 when Kerry addressed the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Sen. KERRY: I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.

(Soundbite of cheering)

WELNA: That duty would end bitterly for Kerry with President Bush's reelection.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): And losing a presidential election is tough duty in anybody's book.

WELNA: That's a longtime Senate colleague of Kerry's, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: And I think it took a little bit of time for him to come back. I think he made a decision that he was going to maximize his time in the Senate. Because there is no question that he's much more active, much more present, much more deliberative, much more participatory than he ever has been.

Sen. KERRY: I'm not doing very much different from what I've done in many years here. I'm just in a different place.

WELNA: Kerry insists on playing down his new prominence.

Sen. KERRY: Maybe because I ran for president, didn't make it, it's more noticeable now or something, but I don't stop and I haven't analyzed that.

WELNA: Kerry's fallen star started rising again when he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That happened after President Obama chose Joe Biden, the previous chairman as his running mate. Richard Lugar, who's that panel's top Republican, says it was a turning point for Kerry.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): John Kerry has always had enormous leadership possibilities, but they've been limited by the fact that he did not have a chairmanship.

WELNA: Kerry, in fact, goes a long way back with the Foreign Relations Committee. The 65-year-old senator appeared before that panel nearly four decades ago as a Vietnam veteran dressed in fatigues bitterly denouncing a war he said had been fought for nothing.

Sen. KERRY: Because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

WELNA: For Kerry, the war in Afghanistan has not been a mistake. He's even prepared to support a request for what he calls some additional troops from President Obama.

Sen. KERRY: You know, there's no small irony in my being chairman of the committee in front of which I made that statement years ago and having some responsibility for what these policies are.

WELNA: Kerry is also no longer overshadowed by Ted Kennedy. The late senator's death in August left Kerry with a new title: senior senator from Massachusetts.

Sen. KERRY: When Senator Kennedy passed away, I think everybody in the delegation, because we all talked about it, knew that we all have to step up. And, you know, they're impossible shoes to fill, but nevertheless we've got to walk in the footsteps, so to speak.

WELNA: And just as Kennedy turned to pragmatic deal making after losing a 1980 bid for the White House, so has Kerry. He's teamed up with Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to craft a business-friendly climate change bill that could attract GOP support. Graham says working with him has been a revelation.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): The one thing that I didn't realize about Senator Kerry, he's a big Pink Panther fan and so am I. And that was one of the - and so is his wife. So, you never know about people until you sit down and talk with them. We tell a lot of Inspector Clouseau jokes.

WELNA: Sometimes that's what it takes for things to happen in the Senate. And John Kerry is now well-positioned to try to make them happen.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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