The Magazine

The Many Faces of John Kerry

From the February 9, 2004 issue: His record offers several avenues for GOP attack. Or does it?

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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LET'S SAY you're a Republican strategist. It's around 10 P.M. on Tuesday, January 26, and you're watching Senator John Kerry, Democrat from Massachusetts, deliver his valedictory speech to supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire. Kerry has just been declared the winner in the New Hampshire primary. A week earlier, he won the Iowa caucuses. You remember that no Democratic presidential candidate who won back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire has ever lost his party's nomination. Kerry, you realize, is now the Democratic frontrunner. By a million miles.

For six months, Republicans have anticipated running against former Vermont governor Howard Dean. They couldn't wait to attack Dean's antiwar stance, his call for total repeal of the Bush tax cuts, his secularism, and his temperament. They had their clever cable-TV soundbites at the ready: Dean was George McGovern and Walter Mondale all rolled into one angry politician.

But what will they say about Kerry? Watching Kerry speak to his supporters, one has to concede he looks presidential. His baritone conveys gravitas. He sounds eager to defend his 19-year record as a senator. His supporters sound eager, too: When Kerry tells them that he has "only begun to fight," they break out into a chant of "Bring It On! Bring It On!" The chant has become a Kerry slogan, a sort of shorthand used to describe the belief among Kerry supporters--and, apparently, among Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers--that the senator is the only Democrat who can stand toe-to-toe with President Bush.

Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is in the business of proving them wrong. Addressing an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Virginia, a few days before the New Hampshire primary, he laid out a plan for dealing with the new Democratic frontrunner.

"Kerry," Gillespie said, is "one of the most liberal members of the Senate." More so, in fact, than the senior senator from Massachusetts: "Americans for Democratic Action--the premier liberal rating organization--puts [Kerry's] lifetime rating at 93 percent," Gillespie noted. "Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy has a lifetime rating of 88 percent--five points less."

Gillespie paused. "Who would have guessed it?" he asked. "Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!"

Gillespie's joke got a lot of laughs. But was it an accurate assessment of Kerry's vulnerabilities? Will Republicans have no trouble portraying the senator as a Massachusetts liberal? As soft on national security? As an aloof aristocrat? Republican strategists say Kerry is vulnerable in four areas--his antiwar activity 33 years ago, his record on taxes, his record on national security, and his social liberalism. Let's see how the newly anointed Democratic frontrunner measures up.

VIETNAM. Kerry campaign staffers are confident the senator's service in Vietnam inoculates him from charges that he is "soft" on national security. Maybe. Of course, Kerry's heroism during the Vietnam War is well-established. In 1969, as the captain of a Swift boat, the future senator ferried U.S. soldiers across the waters of the Mekong Delta. He served bravely. One of the war stories you hear a lot is how Kerry saved the life of a Green Beret named Jim Rassman, who went overboard during a gunfight. These days Rassman, a registered Republican, stumps for Kerry. "I'm switching registration to vote for John Kerry," Rassman tells campaign audiences.

Kerry was wounded three times in Vietnam. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. But it's what happened after he came back to the United States that Republican strategists see as a potential vulnerability. In 1971, Kerry became involved in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an antiwar group with ties to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda. Kerry served as the group's spokesman, marched on the Capitol, and testified before Congress. His role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War made him famous and, to some, infamous. The Nixon administration had a file on Kerry.

Kerry has said that the antiwar movement was a "movement of conscience." He has said that he was "proud" to have marched on the Capitol in 1971. But he will still have to answer questions about his antiwar activities. For many years, critics have derided Kerry for what they saw as his opportunistic involvement with the antiwar movement. They love to recount how, in a famous episode, Kerry threw other people's medals onto the Capitol steps in 1971, along with ribbons of his own. New criticisms have surfaced in the last few weeks. For example, Ed Gillespie told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that during the famous 1971 protest, "accounts of that...demonstration had [Kerry] staying in a friend's Georgetown townhouse while the masses stayed in tents."