Kerry becoming new dark horse
Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 24, 2004
Senator John Kerry is becoming the first modern dark-horse candidate – in an old sense of the term.
The phrase was used to describe 19th century presidential candidates whose principle virtue was their absence of a national image. And that’s been the key to Kerry’s success so far.
When the brickbats were being hurled at Howard Dean, Kerry was quite content to keep his head down and minimize his visibility. He wisely avoided getting in the way as Dean self-destructed. Kerry became known as the un-Dean, a liberal alternative who did not have foot-in-mouth disease.
Dean had dominated the national stage from August 2003 until January 2004, and the resulting public attention proved more than he could handle. After beating Dean in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Massachusetts senator had only to run a short four-week February sprint to the finish line in the front-loaded nomination calendar.
This brief time in the limelight was dominated by a sense of Kerry’s inevitable triumph, permitting none of the scrutiny of a normal nominating process. He won the nomination with his dark-horse status intact.
As soon as the nomination was his, Kerry retired to the ski slopes of Aspen and his elective surgery bed, avoiding the public scrutiny a newly minted nominee usually attracts.
Luck always helps: Just as Bush’s negative ads threatened to out the Massachusetts senator and show his liberalism for all to see, first the 9/11 Commission and then the war in Iraq flared up, again distracting scrutiny from Kerry.
The man who had won his party’s nomination by stepping aside and letting Dean destroy himself, now sought to repeat the act as President Bush wrestled with al Qaeda and the Baathists in Iraq and with Richard Clarke closer to home.
Just when the cacophony of foreign wars and domestic finger-pointing over 9/11 seemed ready to die down, Ronald Reagan died, monopolizing the spotlight in death as he had in life.
Now it’s Bill Clinton’s turn. With the nation fixated on his orgy of self-indulgent navel-pondering, Kerry can’t get a word in edgewise as the former president opines about Monica, Ken Starr, Whitewater and all the controversies of his White House years.
And Clinton seems destined to hog the spotlight for more weeks on end, probably stretching right up to the verge of the Democratic Convention at the end of July.
Will the real John Kerry emerge from the shadows then? Don’t bet on it. The senator’s canned appearances at his party convention are not likely to improve our knowledge of his credentials, character or political ideology.
So until August, at the earliest, the Democratic Party will be represented by a man few of us know.
If this is his strategy, Kerry’s being wise. Modern politics is a lot like modern warfare, where precision-guided munitions never miss. The best way to avoid being killed is to avoid being seen.
As Dean found out between November and January, and Bush learned in April and May, when you are the center of attention, your risk of political mortality is very high.
Only the stealth candidate – the modern dark horse, who hides in the shadows of his opponent – can make it all the way to the finish line intact.
The lesson for Bush is that he must force Kerry out of the shadows. But how? His $80 million of negative ads have trimmed the Democrat’s favorable/unfavorable ratio from 58-33 in March to 50-41 now, but have yet to cut into the half of the electorate that voted for Gore and remains positive to Kerry.
The key is to lower the volume of the other news so that Kerry can stand out on his own. Iraq must be pacified. No more torture photos or suicide killings of Americans. The 9/11 Commission must pass from center stage.
Then, and only then, will Americans look closely at the man who might be their president. And when they do, they won’t like what they see.
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Rewriting History.
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