Does Kerry Have What It Takes?

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry appears to be the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. His rapid rise to the top of the national polls marks one of the most amazing comebacks in American political history.

One month ago, political analysts had all but given up on Kerry. When he entered the race one year earlier, many had considered the popular Senator to be the favorite to win the 2004 Democratic nomination. But Kerry’s campaign was, at best, sluggish and never caught fire. Instead it was Vermont Governor Howard Dean who energized the party faithful and dominated the 2003 political campaign news.

By the start of 2004, Dean was leading in every national and most statewide polls. He was beating Kerry by more than 30 points in their neighboring state of New Hampshire. And in the first state to hold a contest, Iowa, Dean was also in a strong first place position leading over Congressman Dick Gephardt. Kerry was a distant third.

With his campaign dying and out of cash, Kerry made a strategic decision. He had already fired his campaign manager and mortgaged his home in order to loan his campaign six million dollars. He now decided to refocus and risk all of his campaign resources on an all-or-nothing win in Iowa.

The political press scoffed at what they termed Kerry’s “desperation.” The negative press emanating from all of this appeared to pound the final nail into the coffin of Kerry’s presidential campaign.

What the pundits didn’t see, however, was that when faced with this “do or die” scenario, Kerry became an energized candidate. His crowds in Iowa grew as did support for his campaign.

From single digit support at the beginning of the year, Kerry’s poll numbers began to edge upwards. He had built an effective organization in Iowa and his newly focused campaign style began to win over new voters. The rest is history. The Kerry win in Iowa did exactly what candidates hope an Iowa victory will do. It gave Kerry a week of positive national news headlines and an influx of needed campaign contributions. This generated momentum, which helped Kerry overtake Dean in New Hampshire and catapult him to the top of the national polls as well. Last week Kerry won most of the contested states and his campaign has now begun to collect endorsements from leading Democrats giving him the aura of presumptive nominee.

The national media, which one-month ago was near to crowning Howard Dean as the nominee, has now shifted decidedly in Kerry’s direction. But with this blessing, has also come a curse. As many a seasoned politician knows, the same media that can inflate a candidate can also deflate. And so Kerry can now expect closer scrutiny and negative press coverage as reporters dig into the details of his practices during his past three decades in politics.

There is an object lesson in all of this. Politics is part perception and part real organization and political work. Both are critical to ultimate success. Kerry was able to turn around the early perceptions of his failing campaign by digging-in in Iowa and winning a solid victory in that state’s political trenches. This changed the media coverage and, created new, more positive perceptions about his campaign. This, in turn, helped propel him to a string of victories.

In the fast paced primary calendar ahead, Kerry must now maintain this momentum and not allow hostile news stories or attacks to derail him. A serious mistake on his part could, at this still early stage in the process, turn the media focus into a negative thereby shifting the positive spotlight back to one of his opponents. Waiting in the wings are either the attractive southern Senator John Edwards who last week won the South Carolina primary or the General with the impressive resume, Wesley Clark. Howard Dean, who has not given up, despite failing to win any of the first 11 states, remains a well-funded and strongly supported potential threat.

One decade ago a great American journalist, Richard Ben Cramer, wrote a wonderful book on presidential politics called "What it Takes." In it he describes the grueling enterprise of presidential campaign politics and observes that the candidates who succeed are those who have “what it takes,” that is those who in the face of adversity bounce back, fight and win as if their very lives depended on victory.

From his days as a decorated war hero in Vietnam, when he returned to the United States to help lead the opposition to that war, Kerry has shown himself to be, when pressed, a man who possesses “what it takes.”

He showed the same grit and determination in Iowa. During the next few weeks he will face still greater tests which will determine whether or not he has “what it takes” to win.

A final note: while early on Democrats debated the war, taxes and health care, polls now show that the principal concern of Democratic voters is beating President George W. Bush. A significant number of those who voted for John Kerry did so because they view him as “more electable” than his competitors.

This issue, winning in November, is what this primary contest is about. While the Democrats may attack each other, they know that this intramural fight is but a warm-up for what will be a brutal November election. And Democrats want a nominee who will withstand the assault and show that he has “what it takes to win.”