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Sen. John Kerry

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Sen. John Kerry
U.S. Sen. John Kerry
Credit: Kerry Senate Web site

John Kerry presidential campaign button
Kerry campaign button
Credit: From the collection of Ken Rudin, NPR News

Aug. 18, 2003 -- NPR's Renee Montagne spoke with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as part of an ongoing Morning Edition series of interviews with each of the announced candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Below, NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin provides background on the Kerry candidacy.

Once upon a time -- way, way back in April or May of 2003 -- there was a general feeling among more than a few political observers that John Forbes Kerry was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president. "Frontrunner," of course, is a word that is used too liberally, and sometimes foolishly, by journalists and analysts. And it's especially pointless to use the word at a time when anyone has yet to cast a vote. But between his well-oiled fundraising machine, impressive staff hires, and organization in the key early states -- not to mention his status as a decorated war veteran -- the feeling was that the Massachusetts senator was the candidate to beat for the right to take on President Bush in 2004.

Then came the Howard Dean phenomenon, in which the former governor of Vermont took in more money than any other candidate -- and more than expected -- in the second quarter of 2003. His supporters, always among the campaign's more enthusiastic, seemed to take the Internet by storm. The rise of Dean came as Kerry was recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Before you knew it, Dean seemed to be the only candidate anyone wanted to talk about.

This had to be especially galling for Kerry, who is battling Dean for supremacy in neighboring New Hampshire as well as among the same cadre of left-of-center voters. Their rivalry was in plain view during the candidates' first (and thus far only) debate, last May in South Carolina, where Kerry and Dean clashed several times. Most memorable was a statement by Kerry, responding to a comment a week before by Dean that reportedly questioned Kerry's "courage" on the issues. At the debate, Kerry, his voice filled with drama, reminded viewers of his war record and said, "I don't need any lectures in courage from Howard Dean."

Whatever criticism there is of Kerry -- most of which comes from the left wing of the party -- is not necessarily about "courage." It's more about Kerry's alleged caution. Supporters of the leading anti-war candidates, such as Dean and, to a lesser extent, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, claim that Kerry is trying to have it both ways on Iraq, voting in favor of giving President Bush the authority to wage war but speaking out against the Bush policy. The same has been said about his Vietnam service: a decorated veteran, who came home to be a leading anti-war activist. Kerry's drive to the nomination does not lack passion, but it certainly pales in intensity with the speeches of Dean and Kucinich. (Regarding Iraq, Kerry defends his vote but says that the Bush administration has not planned for the war's aftermath and should have expanded diplomatic efforts before the fighting to ensure wider international backing.)

On taxes, Kerry also differs from Dean and some other candidates in that he doesn't share their view that the Bush tax cut should be repealed in its entirety; Kerry supports retaining the tax cut for middle- and lower-income families. He was also a leader in the thus-far successful fight against opening the Arctic to oil drilling, and has promised to filibuster any nominee for Supreme Court justice who opposes abortion rights.

One of the strengths of the Kerry candidacy is thought to be his service in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He is the only candidate in either party who saw active military duty. Some say that his background inures him from the inevitable GOP attack on Democrats over national security and defense issues. What makes him potentially vulnerable is that he is from Massachusetts -- not exactly in the center of the country's political spectrum, home of failed presidential candidates Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. Kerry, in fact, was Dukakis' lieutenant governor when he succeeded the retiring Tsongas in the Senate in 1985. (He also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress in 1972.) Some wags insist that the Democrats can't hope to win nationally with another "Massachusetts liberal." But unlike Dukakis, the party's 1988 presidential nominee, Kerry is a ferocious campaigner, not prone to allow charges in attack ads to be made without responding in kind. Plus, you're not going to find him riding a tank.

One more note about Massachusetts: The last time a sitting senator was elected to the presidency was in 1960. And his initials were also J.F.K.

Related NPR Stories

more Nov. 21, 2003: Jacob Weisberg and Will Saletan of Slate analyze political ads from Democratic presidential candidates John Kerry and Wesley Clark.

more Nov. 18, 2003: NPR's Mara Liasson reports on the battle for New Hamphsire between Howard Dean and John Kerry.

more Nov. 10, 2003: Kerry fires campaign manager Jim Jordan in an effort to energize his candidacy.

more Oct. 28, 2003: NPR's Robert Siegel interviews Kerry.

more Sept. 2, 2003: Kerry officially announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

more Aug. 28, 2003: Poll says Howard Dean leads Kerry in New Hamphsire.

more Aug. 7, 2003: On Day to Day, Slate political columnist Will Saletan translates Kerry's favorite buzzwords.

more July 31, 2003: All Things Considered presents a Kerry stump speech excerpt.

more April 24, 2003: Kerry campaigns in New Hampshire.

more April 22, 2003: Kerry speaks about Earth Day and the environment on the Tavis Smiley Show.

more March 5, 2003: NPR's Mara Liasson reports about how Kerry and other candidates have dealt with questions about their health.

more Jan. 30, 2003: A Tavis Smiley Show interview with Kerry about his presidential bid

more Sept. 22, 1998: Kerry urges President Clinton to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the Monica Lewinsky matter.

more More Morning Edition interviews with the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates

Web Resources

  • John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign Web site

  • Kerry's Senate Web site